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…says child, adolescent, and maternal diets particularly vulnerable

Staff Reporter 

The two nationwide lockdowns affected the provision of free school meals for about 64,000 students in the country. Schools had to remain closed for almost the whole academic year.

According to a joint press release from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the World Health Organisation (WHO), of the 90,000 students in Bhutan (entitled to school meals), almost 71 percent missed the fortified school meals due to the two nationwide lockdowns triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a new report on food security and nutrition, the global bodies have warned that the economic impact from the pandemic is further worsening the existing inequalities, fuelling the malnutrition issue of the nearly two billion people in Asia and Pacific.

The report states that South Asia, home to majority of severe food insecure people (86 percent), will have impacts on all forms of malnutrition triggered by the pandemic.

The FAO estimates that the global number of undernourished people could increase by 132 million, assuming a decline of global GDP of 10 percent attributable to the impact of the economic recession associated with Covid-19.

The WFP estimated that an additional 137 million people could face acute food insecurity by the end of 2020, an increase of 82 percent compared to the pre-Covid-19 estimate.

The press release stated that Bhutan’s food and nutrition security are fragile to events such as disasters and pandemics as the country still imported about 50 percent of its total food consumption.

It was learnt that food prices have increased by approximately 15 percent over the last year and have cast a shadow on food security and livelihoods of vulnerable people.

In Bhutan, nutritious foods such as eggs, fruits and vegetables are often much more expensive than staples such as wheat, rice and maize, which fill stomachs and provide calories, but offer little in terms of vitamins and minerals.

The press release stated that in times of crisis, vulnerable households have to give up nutrient-rich foods to preserve their caloric intake. “The nutrition of Bhutanese people is likely to be affected by the pandemic as people shift diets to more affordable food and shelf-stable and pre-packaged foods, which generally are less nutritious.”

One of the immediate impacts of the pandemic in Bhutan were felt by the most vulnerable section of the population, the urban residents, who depend totally on imports from across the borders and supplies from the rural farming community.

FAO Bhutan’s assistant resident representative, Chadho Tenzin, said that food prices and available incomes govern household decisions on food and dietary intake. “But the outbreak of Covid-19 and a lack of decent work opportunities in many parts of the region, alongside significant uncertainty of food systems and markets, has led to a worsening of inequality, as poorer families with dwindling incomes further alter their diets to choose cheaper, less nutritious foods.”

According to the report, in Bhutan, about 41 percent of children under five years are not growing well, wasted or overweight. Close to 35 percent of children in the country are stunted, about 6 percent under five years are suffering from wasting, 11.7 percent of children have low birth weight and 7.6 percent of children under five are overweight. Also, around 35 percent of women of reproductive age in Bhutan had anaemia.

The report states that challenges in accessing quality and diversified nutrition services due to and during the pandemic, will leave deep impacts on early life nutrition with possible intergenerational consequences for child growth and development, life-long impacts on education, chronic disease risks, and overall human capital formation.

UNICEF Bhutan Representative, Dr Will Parks, said that the report was a call to not lose momentum in the efforts that were made for the well-being of mothers and children. “UNICEF remains committed to support the Royal Government of Bhutan in building back better by implementing nutrition-sensitive policies such as the 1,000 golden days programme that can nurture the health of every child and mother.”

Recommendations

The report calls for a transformation of food systems in Asia and the Pacific, with an aim to increase the affordability of, and families’ access to, nutritious, safe, and sustainable diets.

It recommends governments to invest in nutrition and food safety in fresh and street food markets to promote healthy diets. “Regulation of sales and marketing of food for consumers, especially children, is important to curb overweight, obesity and related diseases and illness.”

The report also calls for action within the private sector, as it has an important role to play in supporting the transformation of the food system and its value chains for achieving healthy diets.

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