September is observed as Nutrition Month in India. And God knows we need to do all we can, considering how poorly we are faring. Just to reiterate some of our national statistics:
- Under-five prevalence of stunting (when a child has a low height for their age) is 37.9%, which is greater than the developing country average of 25%. Under-five wasting (low weight for a child’s height) prevalence of 20.8% –greater than the developing country average of 8.9%.
- 40 per cent of adolescent girls and 18 per cent of boys are anaemic.
- 4% of women of reproductive age have anaemia.
No questions about it, there have been tremendous efforts. India’s school mid-day meal programme is the largest feeding initiative in the world. Some states, apart from hot meals, also provide milk to the children. The Anganwadi role of providing supplementary nutrition and take-home rations for under-6 children and pregnant and lactating mothers is another crucial input. The efforts to strengthen the Public Distribution System are key. The opening of subsidized canteens in many states is something that has seen success too. Non-government actors too have played a role—Akshaya Patra’s mid-day meals are something which many school children look forward to, and indeed are often the reason why children want to go to school! Many other NGOs have innovative programmes too.
Proper nutrition for all age groups is important, but it takes on special importance in the case of infants and children, as this lays the foundation for healthy adolescence and adulthood.
it is not just what parents DO NOT feed the children that is important. It is equally important what they DO. Here is a sight one can often see. A daily-wager mother is on her way home. The child is hungry and crying. It may still take them half an hour to get home. Not only is the child demanding food, but a particular kind of food—a packet of chips or namkeen. The mother often succumbs, stretching her affordability to satisfy the child and the hunger. Other times, the scene is repeated with a slight variation—a small child walking home from school insists the mother buys a small packet of noodles to cook for the evening snack.
Not to say that every child and adult does not deserve to indulge once in a while on junk foods. But when it is a habit and a lifestyle, and when it comes at the cost of nutrition for a child, it takes on a serious dimension. Rs. 10 can easily buy an egg and a fruit. But the mother has only Rs. 10. And that that goes for the chips or namkeen, which at best does not contribute much nutritionally, and at worst is actually unhealthy. And the child does not get the egg and fruit.
One supposes that it is not right to hope that government will ban such small packs for unhealthy foods—after all, it is a free market and people have to make their choices. And what is more, we have been told that there are fortunes to be made at the bottom of the pyramid, and that it is indeed our duty to make these fortunes by adapting products and services to meet this demand! But can they be more informed choices? Can there be huge educational campaigns not only for what is good nutrition for a child, but what is not? Can schools step up their education about this? Can we reach parents? Can packs carry warnings?
And more proactively, can the Government Subsidized Canteens also sell items like boiled eggs, fruit by the piece, chikki made of groundnuts and jaggery? Can every village panchayat put up hand-carts with these items at certain times of the day? And if at all we are to have small packs of anything, can it be milk at Rs. 10?
COVID times have made all these issues more challenging—not only through disruptions to the official systems, but more seriously in the long term, due to loss of jobs and incomes. We have to go into mission mode and plan how we will overcome these. This is a problem that affects not just our today, but a whole generation.