UN World Food Programme

Scaling Up The Right Nutrition Solutions In Emergencies...But Is There Enough?

Ready-to-eat foods are critical in an emergency like the floods in Pakistan where people can't often cook and have limited access to clean water. Copyright: WFP/Amjad Jamal

A string of humanitarian crises this year has put a strain on global supplies of ready-to-use supplementary foods (RUSFs) like plumpy'doz vital to combating child malnutrition. In Pakistan, WFP is filling the gap with a locally-produced chickpea paste that could help bolster RUSF stocks in the future.

Tanuja Rastogi, ScD, Nutrition Coordinator

Providing the right nutrition solutions to protect thousands of children from malnutrition is at the core of WFP’s emergency response to the recent floods in Pakistan.

The science is clear:  overwhelming evidence points to the importance of adequate nutrition during the critical window of opportunity – from pregnancy to two years of age - to prevent irreversible physical and cognitive impairments.

For WFP, this means providing the Right Foods to prevent child malnutrition -  particularly in emergencies where sudden food shortages and poor hygiene have devastating and life-long impacts on children.

Ready-to-use supplementary foods (RUSF), fortified with necessary micro- and macronutrients, are central in WFP’s nutrition response in Pakistan– with upwards of 850,000 households receiving these life-saving foods over the coming months.  Though other food-based nutrition solutions exist, these specialised nutrition products do not require the addition of water -- decreasing the risk of infections due to a lack of clean water in the current humanitarian crisis.

Recently referred to as ‘magic’ in a September 5th New York Times article (The Peanut Solution), Plumpy’ nut™, a specially formulated peanut-based nutritional paste, will also be distributed by partnering agencies to treat severe acute malnutrition in Pakistan.   Andrew Rice, the article’s author, rightfully highlights how critical such peanut-based nutritional products are in the broader global fight against child malnutrition. WFP is already distributing plumpy’doz™ and supplementary plumpy™, similar peanut-based products that prevent and address moderate malnutrition. Rice also brings to light the controversy over the patent held by its French producer, Nutriset.

Undeniably, current global supply of specialised nutrition products is not able to keep up with tremendous demands – most notably resulting from recent large-scale humanitarian crises in Haiti, Niger and now Pakistan - where demand has unpredictably and sharply increased over short periods.

As the largest humanitarian agency operating globally in nearly 80 countries, WFP is increasingly using specialised products to meet the needs of the world’s most vulnerable children in both emergency and non-emergency contexts.

As of this week, WFP has a nearly sufficient supply of specialised products for the coming months in Pakistan.  However, due to an overall global shortage of these products, the organization remains exposed to significant risk of not being able to meet the demand for the new generation of products, particularly in the next large-scale emergency that will undoubtedly arise in the near term.

In a win-win solution, WFP is helping to address supply constraints through local nutrition solutions in Pakistan. With guidance from food technologists over the past few years and in partnership with local food industries in Pakistan, WFP is locally producing a chickpea-based ready-to-use supplementary food that is being deployed in the current emergency operations.

Adapted to local taste preferences and using local agriculture commodities, the Pakistan product is helping prevent malnutrition among children affected by the floods. Though presently produced on a relatively small scale, this local product will also help sustain future nutrition programmes in the country and the region.

As Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs recently recommended in his Huffington Post blog (Saying “Nuts” to Hunger, September 6th), such locally produced, quality-controlled, ready to use fortified foods are essential and should be promoted in preventing malnutrition in emergencies as well as tackling chronic undernutrition in non-emergency settings.

Ultimately, innovations like this -- as well as important and broader private sector involvement -- will help WFP continue to meet the nutrition demands of the world’s most vulnerable children.