Why the Quality of Food Matters in Combating Hunger
When one sees pictures of starving children in Yemen or the multitudes of refugees walking long distances with clearly limited resources, the first and appropriate reaction is to get enough calories to these stricken individuals so that they can survive and not feel the pangs of severe hunger. This is an urgent matter, and the world is currently seeing a surge of those in dire need that organizations such as the World Food Program are struggling to serve given the enormity of the task.
Full bellies however, do not necessarily equate healthy bodies. Prolonged consumption of foods lacking in essential vitamins and minerals leads to weakened immune systems. Young children and women in their child-bearing years are particularly vulnerable because their needs are great. A young child is growing fast and even if he or she recovers from severe weight loss, without a quality diet that child will be like to fall sick frequently, have poor cognitive development and is likely to end up being much shorter than healthy children of the same age. Malnourished children are easy to spot, not only because of their weight but because they are often listless and quiet.
Evidence has been growing over the past two decades on the importance of quality diets to ensure proper development of the brain and to assure a healthy future as an adult. Returns to investments in campaigns to fight micronutrient malnutrition have been estimated at $13 USD for every dollar invested. There is now no doubt that failure to invest in good nutrition during the first years of life does negatively affect a country’s GDP. Clearly, it costs more to grow or provide quality diets but with such a high return on investment how can societies not afford to do so? Many believe that it is not government’s role to lead in this arena, that growing incomes will lead to better diet quality on their own, but the emergence of the “double burden”—seeing both under- and over-nutrition issues emerge in the same country-- should serve notice to policy makers that more proactive guidance is necessary.
Recognizing that poor people rely heavily on their staple foods for most of their energy needs, the concept of biofortification–that is, breeding key micronutrients into staple foods—was born. Improving the basic quality of the staples many consume on a daily basis or several times a week has proved to be a cost-effective way to contribute towards addressing major vitamin or mineral deficiencies. This should be combined with efforts to increase the productivity of vegetable, fruits and key livestock products, so that those most in need of quality food can be able to afford key sources of vitamins, minerals and proteins. The challenge is to get governments, the private sector and civil society to join together to promote, invest in and regulate effective food systems that serve the needs of all segments of society. Taxing poor quality foods and drinks (sugary drinks, for instance) is emerging as a doable strategy to help finance such efforts.