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How Nutrition Feeds A Healthy Childhood

Mothers and children receive specialized nutrition to fight malnutrition, and prevent the damaging effects it can have on a child's life. Copyright: WFP/ Rein Skullerud

Nutrition plays a fundamental role in the life of every child. Without it, children cannot grow up to reach their full potential and face health risks like stunting that haunt them for the rest of their lives. On Universal Children's Day (November 20) we talked to Anna Horner, a nutritionist in West Africa, about WFP's work ensuring that kids get the nutrition they need.

1) How many children globally are affected by hunger and malnutrition?

In 2011, an estimated 165 million children under five years of age worldwide were stunted or chronically undernourished, meaning that they have suffered from restricted growth and development in their early childhood. In the same year, an estimated 52 million children were suffering from wasting or acute malnutrition, which is linked to an increased risk for illness and death.

Both of these forms of malnutrition are prevalent in the West Africa region where stunting is estimated to affect approximately 36 percent of children under five years 

while approximately 5 million children are estimated to suffer from wasting at any point in time.

2) In what way does hunger and malnutrition affect children?

Hunger and malnutrition can have a lifelong impact on the lives of children. Scientific evidence has shown that malnutrition can cause irreversible damage to children in terms of both growth and development and can lead to an increased risk of mortality. For example, studies have shown that chronic malnutrition in the first two years of life prevents children from reaching their full mental and physical potential, increases their likelihood of illness, affects their ability to concentrate in school, and even impacts their earning potential in adulthood.

The impacts of malnutrition are inter-generational, passed down from mother to child, thus perpetuating the cycle of poor nutrition and health.

3) What are the most serious consequences of hunger / malnutrition for children?

A child with Moderate Acute Malnutrition (MAM) is 3-4 times more likely to die than a well-nourished child because of increased vulnerability to infections and risk of further deterioration of their nutritional status. A child with Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) is 9 times more likely to die as compared to a well-nourished child.

Although chronic malnutrition, or “stunting,” is not directly linked with a strong risk of mortality, children with chronic malnutrition have a higher risk of suffering from chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, later in life.

4) Why is proper nutrition especially important during the first 1000 days?

Evidence has shown that investing in good nutrition during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life — from conception to two years of age — is critical to put children on the path to life-long growth, development and productivity. WFP’s nutrition programmes prioritize this critical period, referred to as the “window of opportunity,” by focusing nutrition programmes on young children, pregnant women and nursing mothers because they are the most vulnerable from a nutritional point of view.

Since malnutrition is passed down from mother to child, through an inter-generational cycle, a malnourished mother has an increased risk of giving birth to a baby with a low birth-weight, who in turn has a greater likelihood of growing up to be a malnourished child. By providing specialized nutrition products to children and mothers at critical points in their life, we can break this cycle and limit the burden of malnutrition for future generations. It is at this stage that WFP strives to make a difference with our nutrition activities.

5) What kind of nutrition do children need and why is it not only a matter of food quantity?

Getting the right nutrients in the right quantity is of utmost importance for children’s health and nutrition. Good nutrition is therefore not just a matter of sufficient quantity, but also adequate quality and quantity of food. Without the right type of nutrients in the right quantity, a child’s body fails to grow properly, which can lead to stunting, wasting, and micronutrient deficiencies. The first two years of a child’s life are a particularly important period; because this is a time of rapid growth, children’s nutrient needs are high.

In most of the regions where WFP operates, and especially across West Africa, families struggle to provide young children with sufficiently diversified diets composed of the nutritious foods needed to provide the essential amino acids as well as micro- and macro-nutrients required for proper growth and development. WFP’s activities nutrition thus focus not just on ensuring that children receive enough food, but that it is the right kinds of food to meet children’s specific nutritional needs.

6) What is WFP doing to help these children - and please feel free to mention some concrete examples from your work during the Sahel-crisis?

WFP puts a particular focus on ensuring good nutrition through its programmes around the world. The first priority of WFP’s nutrition activities is to lower malnutrition rates and reduce the risk of mortality for young children, who are the most vulnerable. In order to do so, WFP works both to prevent different forms of malnutrition in children, as well as to treat children with moderate acute malnutrition (MAM) and malnourished pregnant women or nursing mothers by providing adapted nutritious foods during critical periods.

Furthermore, since nutrition issues are cross-cutting through WFP’s work, we also ensure that nutrition aspects are integrated into other activities which we implement, such as school meals, food for assets or relief programmes, which can also be good vehicles for nutrition support. For example, through WFP’s extensive school feeding programmes, children receive a hot meal or fortified snack, helping them grow and concentrate, while also creating an incentive for families to send children to school. These programmes also serve as an important platform to raise awareness among students, especially girls, about good nutrition practices. Furthermore, activities such as school gardening can help teach a child how to eat well and pass that information to the next generation.

This year, with the food and nutrition crisis in the Sahel, WFP implemented nutrition activities in 8 countries in the region and provided critical nutrition support to almost 1.5 million children and women.

7) What are the different methods that WFP uses to combat malnutrition among mothers and young children?

WFP works actively to both prevent and treat malnutrition. This allows us to ensure that we not only help those children who are already malnourished to regain a healthy nutritional status, but also to ensure that those who are at risk of becoming malnourished are kept healthy.

In order to treat moderate acute malnutrition in children under 5, WFP supports nutrition programmes in health centres and in communities throughout the region. These programmes provide children with an adapted nutritious product to eat each day until the child is recovered, while also verifying the child’s growth on a regular basis, providing basic treatment for illnesses, and counseling mothers on good nutrition, health and hygiene practices. These programmes also treat malnutrition among pregnant women and nursing mothers to ensure their health and that of their young children.

Where levels of malnutrition are particularly high, WFP will implement programmes to supply children under the age of 2 and pregnant women and nursing mothers with nutritious food products to ensure that they do not become malnourished. These programmes are generally carried out in emergency contexts or during the annual hunger season — the period before the harvest between April and September when vulnerable groups have difficulty accessing a proper diet and thus face the highest risk of malnutrition.

8) What would you like to highlight on this Universal Children's Day?

Although food plays a central role in the fight against malnutrition, malnutrition is not only about food. To prevent and treat it effectively, you need a broad approach which also tackles other problems such as poor access to basic health services and inappropriate feeding and caring practices of children. Therefore, providing the right food at the right time can make an even greater impact on the nutritional status of children worldwide when these programmes are integrated with other activities. WFP strives to integrate its work in nutrition into a broader approach by educating mothers on the right kind of feeding and caring practices and sharing key health messages to ensure that children get the adequate care they need. Furthermore, improving access to clean water and sanitation, as well as health and nutrition services such as vaccinations, deworming, vitamin A and iron supplements can help address the root causes of malnutrition.

Improving nutrition among children thus requires a collective effort among multiple stakeholders and sectors. In its effort to fight child undernutrition, WFP continues to work in close partnerships with national governments, UN agencies, NGOs, private sector companies and academic institutions. By maximizing the nutritional impact of its food assistance programmes to nearly 100 million people every year, WFP has a unique opportunity to strengthen the next generation as we fight against hunger and malnutrition worldwide.