• Researchers assessed the height and weight of 65 million school-aged children and adolescents in 193 countries.
  • Lack of healthy nutrition in school years was behind a 20cm height gap across nations, the study concluded.
  • COVID-19 is increasing the need for nutrition and putting an additional 6.7 million children under five at risk of wasting.
  • Governments in 68 countries are providing take-home rations, vouchers or cash transfers to children.

Poor nutrition during a child’s school years may account for a 20cm height gap across nations, new research suggests.

The study, which was led by the UK’s Imperial College London and published in The Lancet, analyzed data on the height and weight of 65 million school-aged children and adolescents in 193 countries.

It found a 20cm difference between 19-year-olds in the tallest and shortest nations, representing an eight-year growth gap for girls, and a six-year growth gap for boys.

This chart shows the percentage of children worlwide under the age of 5 who were stunted from 2012 to 2019.
The number of children stunted has fallen gradually since 2012.
Image: Statista

For example, the average 19-year-old girl in Bangladesh and Guatemala (the nations with the world’s shortest girls) is the same height as an average 11-year-old girl in the Netherlands (the nation with the tallest boys and girls).

Stunted growth

Highly variable childhood nutrition, especially a lack of quality food, may lead to stunted growth and a rise in childhood obesity – affecting a child’s health and wellbeing for their entire life, the authors believe.

“Our findings should motivate policies that increase the availability and reduce the cost of nutritious foods, as this will help children grow taller without gaining excessive weight for their height,” said Dr Andrea Rodriguez Martinez, the study’s lead author.

The study suggests initiatives such as food vouchers towards nutritious foods for low-income families, as well as free healthy school meal programmes – which are particularly under threat during the pandemic.

Global nutrition policies should also pay more attention to the growth patterns of older children, rather than focusing on under-fives, the authors said in their study.

Nutrition crisis

Stunting, wasting and obesity caused by lack of nutrition or disease or both was analyzed in March by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and the World Bank Group.

Their joint malnutrition estimates found that in 2019, 47 million children under five were suffering from wasting – and 14.3 million were severely wasted. Wasting is a life-threatening form of malnutrition, which makes children too thin and weak, and puts them at greater risk of dying, poor growth, development and learning, according to UNICEF.

Coronavirus is heightening this nutrition crisis. In July, UNICEF warned that an additional 6.7 million children under five could suffer from wasting in 2020 due to COVID-19, 80% of them from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

“Household poverty and food insecurity rates have increased. Essential nutrition services and supply chains have been disrupted. Food prices have soared. As a result, the quality of children’s diets has gone down and malnutrition rates will go up,” said Henrietta Fore, Executive Director at UNICEF.

At the peak of the pandemic, school closures around the world meant 370 million children missed out on free school meals, according to the World Food Programme, which is monitoring and mapping school closures. The current number is 260 million.

Global effort

For many children, those meals represented the only food they would have each day.

Guided by the World Food Programme and UNICEF, governments in 68 countries are providing take-home rations, vouchers or cash transfers to children – and working on health and nutrition incentives to encourage children to return to school once they reopen.

In the UK, Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford has led a high-profile campaign to extend free school meals outside of term time to help feed impoverished children.

Food

What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose Platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

With research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.

Learn more about Innovation with a Purpose's impact and contact us to see how you can get involved.

His campaign – based on his own experience of childhood poverty – resulted in the government reversing its decision and allowing about 1.3 million children in England to be able to claim free school meal vouchers in the summer holidays.

“We have to keep fighting to stabilize the households of our children,” Rashford said on Twitter.

Ending global hunger is the second of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations’ 193 member states in 2015. Goal 2 targets include ending all forms of malnutrition by 2030.