Young children’s diets show no improvement in last decade, ‘could get much worse’ under COVID-19 – UNICEF
NEW YORK, 22 September 2021 – Children under the age of 2 are not getting the food or nutrients they need to thrive and grow well, leading to irreversible developmental harm, according to a new report released by UNICEF today.
Fed to Fail? The crisis of children’s diets in early life – released ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit this week – warns that rising poverty, inequality, conflict, climate-related disasters, and health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic, are contributing to an ongoing nutrition crisis among the world’s youngest that has shown little sign of improvement in the last ten years.
“Millions of children around the world are affected by the life-limiting outcomes of poor nutrition. By investing £600m and committing to reach 50 million children over the next five years with nutrition-relevant programmes, the UK Government would be making a significant contribution to addressing this problem and put millions of children on a path to healthier and brighter futures,” said Jenny Vaughan, Senior Policy Adviser – Child Health, The UK Committee for UNICEF (UNICEF UK)
In an analysis of 91 countries, the report finds that only half of children aged 6-23 months are being fed the minimum recommended number of meals a day, while just a third consume the minimum number of food groups they need to thrive. Further analysis of 50 countries with available trend data reveals these poor feeding patterns have persisted throughout the last decade.
As COVID-19 continues to disrupt essential services and drives more families into poverty, the report finds that the pandemic is affecting how families feed their children. For example, a survey conducted among urban households in Jakarta found that half of families have been forced to reduce nutritious food purchases. As a result, the percentage of children consuming the minimum recommended number of food groups fell by a third in 2020, compared to 2018.
Children carry the scars of poor diets and feeding practices for life. An insufficient intake of nutrients found in vegetables, fruits, eggs, fish and meat needed to support growth at an early age puts children at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections and, potentially, death.
Children under the age of two are most vulnerable to all forms of malnutrition – stunting, wasting, micronutrient deficiencies, and overweight and obesity – as a result of poor diets, due to their greater need for essential nutrients per kilogram of body weight than at any other time in life.
Globally, UNICEF estimates that more than half of children under the age of 5 with wasting – around 23 million children – are younger than 2 years of age, while the prevalence of stunting increases rapidly between 6 months and two years, as children’s diets fail to keep pace with their growing nutritional needs.
According to the report, children aged 6-23 months living in rural areas or from poorer households are significantly more likely to be fed poor diets compared to their urban or wealthier peers. In 2020, for example, the proportion of children fed the minimum number of recommended food groups was twice as high in urban areas (39 per cent) than in rural areas (23 per cent).
To deliver nutritious, safe, and affordable diets to every child, the report calls for governments, donors, civil society organizations and development actors to work hand-in-hand to transform food, health and social protection systems by leading key actions, including:
- Increasing the availability and affordability of nutritious foods – including fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish meat and fortified foods – by incentivizing their production, distribution and retailing.
- Implementing national standards and legislation to protect young children from unhealthy processed and ultra-processed foods and beverages, and to end harmful marketing practices targeting children and families.
- Increasing 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 notes that progress is possible with investment. In Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, almost two thirds (62 per cent) of children aged 6–23 months are fed a minimally diverse diet, while in Eastern and Southern Africa (24 per cent), West and Central Africa (21 per cent) and South Asia (19 per cent), less than one in four young children are being fed a minimally diverse diet. In all regions, investments are needed to ensure that all children benefit from the diverse diets they need to prevent all forms of malnutrition, and grow, develop and learn to their full potential.
“Despite this very worrying analysis, progress can still be made with joint global action to build, strengthen and transform food systems so children can get the nutrition they need to survive and thrive,” Vaughan added.
Notes to Editors
Multimedia content available to download here
Quantitative data on current status, trends and inequities of young children’s diets presented in this report are derived from UNICEF’s global databases, which include only data that are internationally comparable and statistically sound. UNICEF global databases comprise data from 607 nationally representative surveys conducted in 135 countries and territories, representing more than 90 per cent of all children under the age of 2 globally.
For more information, contact UNICEF UK’s press office:
UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across more than 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone.
The UK Committee for UNICEF (UNICEF UK) raises funds for UNICEF’s emergency and development work for children. We also promote and protect children’s rights in the UK and internationally. We are a UK charity, entirely funded by supporters.
United Kingdom Committee for UNICEF (UNICEF UK), Registered Charity No. 1072612 (England & Wales), SC043677 (Scotland).
About the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit
The UN Food Systems Summit was announced by the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, on World Food Day in October 2020 as a part of the Decade of Action for delivery on the SDGs by 2030. The aim of the Summit is to deliver progress on all 17 of the SDGs through a food systems approach, leveraging the interconnectedness of food systems to global challenges such as hunger, climate change, poverty and inequality. More information about the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit can be found at https://www.un.org/food-systems-summit