An estimated 17 million undernourished children have placed Nigeria in the top position of Africa’s malnutrition burden.
A report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) titled “Fed to Fail? The Crisis of Children’s Diets in Early Life” released in Abuja, yesterday, said the country also held the second position in the global malnutrition burden.
The report was released ahead of the 2021 United Nations (UN) Food Systems Summit scheduled to take place during the UN General Assembly in New York, today.
According to the report, one in three children in Nigeria is stunted and one in 10 children is wasted, setting the country off-track to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2; “Zero Hunger” by 2030.
“In an analysis of 91 countries, including Nigeria, half of the children aged six to 23 months globally are not being fed the minimum recommended number of meals a day.
“Two-thirds, do not consume the minimum number of food groups they need to thrive. In Nigeria, one out of every three children is stunted and one out of every 10 children is wasted.
“As a result, close to 17 million Nigerian children are undernourished (stunted and/or wasted) giving Nigeria the highest-burden of malnutrition in Africa and the second highest in the world. Nigeria is off-track to achieve SDG2: Zero Hunger by 2030. To change this trajectory, the time to act is now to reimagine not just food, but health and social protection systems,” the report advised.
The UNICEF report said children under the age of two were most vulnerable to all forms of malnutrition such as stunting, wasting, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and obesity. It said this was a result of poor diets due to children’s greater need for essential nutrients per kilogram of body weight than at any other time in their life.
“Children carry the scars of poor diets and feeding practices for life. An insufficient intake of nutrients found to support growth at an early age puts children at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections, and potentially, death.
“Globally, UNICEF estimates that more than half of children under the age of five with wasting which is about 23 per cent of children are younger than two years.
“The prevalence of stunting among children increases rapidly between six months and two years, as diet’s fail to keep pace with their growing nutritional needs.
The report said that the “2018 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey” among children aged six to 23 months, estimates that only 23 per cent have the minimum necessary dietary diversity.
According to the report, the survey also estimates that only 42 per cent of children in this age bracket have minimum adequate meal frequency.
The report noted Rushnan Murtaza, the UNICEF Nigeria Deputy Representative, as saying that the food crisis in Nigeria had reached a crucial tipping point.
Murtaza said that only by joining hands with partners, government, and relevant stakeholders, could the Nigerian food system be transformed.
He said that when the system is transformed, better provision and access to diverse, nutritious, safe, and affordable diets for every Nigerian child would be achieved.
“The findings of the UNICEF report are clear; millions of children are not being fed diets adequate for their growth and development.
“Poor nutritional intake in the first two years of life can harm children’s rapidly growing bodies and brains, impacting their futures.
“Now more than ever, with the ongoing COVID-19 disruptions, we need to reimagine a food system that improves the diets of young children, including in Nigeria,” it stated.
The report warned that rising poverty, inequality, conflict, climate change-related disasters, and health emergencies such as COVID-19, were contributing to the ongoing nutrition crisis among the world’s youngest.
The UNICEF report said that before the COVID-19 pandemic, the nutrition crisis was already showing little sign of improvement in the last 10 years.
It said that COVID-19 has continued to disrupt essential services driving more families into poverty and affecting how families feed their children.
Estimates from a 2020 study conducted in Nigeria by UNICEF showed that many Nigerians were unable to afford healthy diets due to pre-existing food security challenges.
The report said that based on the 2020 study, an estimated 40.1 per cent of Nigerians could not cater to their food expenditure, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to worsen food insecurity in the country.
To deliver nutritious, safe and affordable diets to every child year-round, the report called on governments, donors, civil society organisations, and development actors to work hand-in-hand to transform food, health and social protection systems.
The report said this could be done by increasing the availability and affordability of nutritious foods including fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish, meat and fortified foods, and incentivising their production, distribution and retailing.
According to the report, transforming the system also includes implementing national standards and legislation to protect children from unhealthy processed and ultra-processed foods and beverages.
“Harmful marketing practices targeting children and families should end.
“Increase the desirability of nutritious and safe foods through multiple communication channels including digital media to reach parents and children with easy to understand, coherent information,” the report added.
Murtaza said that the UN food systems summit provides an opportunity to reimagine food systems that create a fundamental shift from feeding people to nourishing them.
He said that lessons learned from the summit must be applied to Nigeria to enable the country to secure a healthy future for its children.