Unicef warns 1 in 4 children face severe food poverty in sub-Saharan Africa

Children living in severe food poverty miss out on many nutrient rich foods needed for healthy growth and development. Picture: August de Richelieu/ Pexels

Children living in severe food poverty miss out on many nutrient rich foods needed for healthy growth and development. Picture: August de Richelieu/ Pexels

Published Jun 12, 2024


A recent report from United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (Unicef) sheds light on a concerning issue: child food poverty.

The report, "Nutrition Deprivation in Early Childhood", reveals that a staggering 181 million children worldwide — approximately 1 in 4 kids — are experiencing severe food poverty.

This puts them at a higher risk of life-threatening malnutrition and hinders their growth and brain development.

The report, a comprehensive study conducted across nearly 100 countries including South Africa and various income levels, examines the impact and reasons behind the lack of proper nutrition among the world's youngest individuals.

It urges governments and other stakeholders to take decisive action to revamp food, health and social safety nets. The goal is to ensure that children have access to varied and nutritious diets, enabling them to fulfil their full potential.

Children who consume only two or fewer food groups are considered to be in severe food poverty. Picture: Vanessa Loring/Pexels

What does food poverty mean for children?

It signifies that they are not receiving the recommended intake from at least five essential food groups.

Children who consume only two or fewer food groups are considered to be in severe food poverty, while those with three or four food groups fall into the category of moderate food poverty.

The heart-wrenching reality is that 68 percent of children facing severe food poverty reside in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

These regions, especially in countries like Afghanistan, Nigeria, South Africa, India, are grappling with this crisis, highlighting the urgent need for action to address the issue.

What does child food poverty look like?

Children living in severe child food poverty miss out on many nutrient-rich foods needed for healthy growth and development.

While unhealthy, ultra-processed foods are embedded in their diets: 4 out of 5 are fed only breastmilk and/or dairy products and/or a starchy staple, such as rice, maize or wheat.

Less than 10 percent are fed fruits and vegetables and less than 5 percent are fed eggs, meat, poultry and/or fish.

The report also found that unhealthy foods and beverages are displacing more nutritious foods from their diets.

In Nepal, for example, 42 percent of children living in severe child food poverty consume foods high in sugar, salt and/or fat, and 17 percent consume sweet beverages.

What drives child food poverty in early childhood?

Child food poverty is largely driven by three factors: poor food environments, inadequate feeding practices, and low household income. These issues reveal failures within our food, health, and social protection systems.

Poor food environments

Kids are not getting the nutritious diets they need due to the lack of healthy food options in their surroundings.

Stores and markets are filled with sugary, salty, and unhealthy processed foods, marketed aggressively. Additionally, families struggle to find affordable, nutritious food choices for their children.

Poor feeding practices

Health services are not adequately supporting families in providing the right nutrition for their kids. Parents and communities lack access to crucial information and guidance on child feeding, which is essential for healthy growth and development.

Household income poverty

Many families simply cannot afford nutritious meals for their children. Social protection programs meant to help these vulnerable families are often limited in scope and benefits, making it challenging to provide adequate nutrition.

This economic constraint increases the risks of children facing malnutrition — they are 50% more likely to be underweight and 34% more likely to be shorter than they should be for their age.

These issues highlight the urgent need for better structures and support systems to ensure that all children have access to the nourishment they need for a healthy start in life.

“50 percent more likely to be wasted, 34 percent more likely to be stunted,” the report revealed.

Unicef's report recommendation in mitigating child poverty include:

  • Make fighting child hunger a top priority to reach global and national nutrition goals and measure success in ensuring all children have enough food. Allocate resources to end child hunger.
  • Change the way we produce and distribute food to ensure that healthy and varied options are the easiest, cheapest, and most appealing choices for feeding kids. Hold food companies accountable to rules that protect children from unhealthy foods and drinks.
  • Use healthcare systems to provide important nutrition services to prevent and treat child malnutrition. This includes offering advice and support in communities to help improve how children are fed and cared for, especially focusing on the most at-risk kids.
  • Use social support systems to tackle poverty in ways that address the food needs of the most vulnerable kids and families. Provide aid like cash, vouchers, or food to help children who are most at risk of going hungry.
  • Improve data collection to understand how many children are suffering from food insecurity, why it's happening, and how it's changing over time. By doing this, we can respond quickly to increasing child hunger, especially in difficult situations, and keep track of progress in reducing severe child hunger locally and globally.