The burden of undernutrition is enormous, especially for children. Globally, one quarter of children are stunted, meaning they are not getting enough nutrients to reach their full mental and physical potential. At any given time, around 52 million children are too thin for their height (known as wasting), resulting from rapid weight loss, often due to illness or a severe food insecurity.
Address the direct causes of undernutrition means ensuring i) the quality and quantity of food a person eats, and ii) their overall good health, and a healthy environment.
The World Food Programme (WFP) works with partners across a range of sectors, including health, water, sanitation, agriculture and social protection to ensure all these elements are addressed. However our work primarily focuses on food, ensuring that vulnerable groups have access to a nutritious and age-appropriate diet, particularly during the 1,000-day period from conception to a child’s second birthday.
WFP designs programmes that directly treat and prevent both acute and chronic malnutrition. We work to build the capacity of countries to find long-term solutions, and to influence the broader policy dialogue on food and nutrition security.
While treatment is essential, it is better to prevent the onset of acute malnutrition before it occurs. First, it prevents the suffering caused by malnutrition. Secondly, prolonged periods without an adequate diet can have an irreversible impact on a child’s physical growth and brain development, resulting in stunting. WFP aims to prevent short-term periods of nutritional deterioration, as well as longer-term instances of chronic malnutrition.
During times of temporary or seasonal food insecurity, such as during a lean season or natural disaster, WFP helps to prevent malnutrition by implementing supplementary feeding programmes which help to ensure vulnerable groups have regular access to a nutritious, age-appropriate diet. We often do this by providing specialized nutritious foods to groups who are at-risk of becoming malnourished. These include fortified blended foods or ready-to-use foods, which are usually provided to young children, pregnant women and nursing mothers, and people living with HIV.
In order to make a lasting impact, WFP works in conjunction with partners to advance nutrition education and awareness, improve child feeding practices, and help ensure good health and sanitation as part of prevention programming. As part of our work to reduce chronic malnutrition and prevent stunting, WFP also considers the underlying causes of malnutrition.
Treating acute malnutrition
Acute malnutrition is a major risk factor for children in particular, increasing the risk of death by up to nine-fold. While sudden shocks and protracted crises tend to increase the prevalence of acute malnutrition, many vulnerable groups in non-emergency settings are also affected, such as during the agricultural lean season.
While cost-effective approaches for treating acute malnutrition are available, governments can face challenges to provide services to all the children who require assistance.
WFP supports the treatment of moderate acute malnutrition (MAM) by working at the community level to ensure undernourished individuals – particularly young children and mothers – are getting the calories and nutrients they need to recover.
We do this by providing these groups with specialized nutritious foods – nutrient-dense foods which cater to specific nutrient needs. WFP works with partners to combine treatment with routine health-related interventions (such as vitamin A supplementation and deworming) along with nutrition education programmes.
Under a joint agreement, UNICEF provides treatment to those suffering from severe acute malnutrition (SAM), and WFP works closely with UNICEF to ensure that services for children with SAM and MAM are well linked.
Addressing micronutrient deficiencies
Micronutrient deficiencies represent a largely invisible but devastating form of malnutrition which affects 2 billion people worldwide. In developing countries, deficiencies of zinc, iron, and vitamin A remain among the top ten causes of death. Depending on the context, WFP can address micronutrient deficiencies in a number of ways. Some examples include:
Home fortification with micronutrient powders (or ‘sprinkles’) added to meals to boost micronutrient intake. These can be provided directly by WFP or integrated into local markets or social protection programmes with WFP’s assistance.
General fortification (adding one or more nutrients during food processing) of staple foods and condiments, such as adding vitamin A to vegetable oil or iron to rice. In addition to distributing fortified foods, WFP and private partners work with governments to help establish or expand general food fortification at a national or regional level.
Education to promote a more diverse food basket in areas where nutritious foods are available and accessible. However, diets that are heavily plant-based and contain little meat and dairy are often unlikely to meet the nutrient needs of young children.