Food and Water

1 in 4 children live in severe food poverty – here's what needs to happen

Food market.

Food systems must be transformed. Image: Unsplash/Annie Spratt

Simon Torkington
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • 1 in 4 children around the world are suffering the effects of extreme food poverty.
  • UNICEF says food systems must be transformed to support vulnerable children.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Food Action Alliance is supporting food system transformation.

Feeding a child is the most fundamental of human instincts, but the parents and carers of tens of millions of children around the world are struggling to fulfil the dietary needs of their children.

According to UNICEF, 1 in 4 children are living in severe food poverty. A new report from the United Nations (UN) children’s agency, Child Food Poverty: Nutrition Deprivation in Early Childhood, reveals that 181 million children under the age of five, worldwide, are experiencing severe food poverty, putting them at risk of malnutrition and life-threatening illness.

Severe child food poverty affects 1 in 4 children, globally
More than 180 million children experience severe food poverty. Image: UNICEF

As the chart above shows, 79% of children in East and Southern Africa are experiencing severe or moderate food poverty. In South Asia, 77% of children under five are missing out on the kind of diet they need to avoid malnutrition and the risk of life-threatening illnesses. While these are the worst affected regions, children in almost every part of the world are afflicted by food poverty.

Lacking essential nutrition

The UNICEF report says “children who consume, at most, two of eight defined food groups are considered to be in severe child food poverty”.

A typical diet for children living in severe food poverty might include just one or two food groups like rice or maize with some milk. Less than 10% regularly eat fruit and vegetables, while under 5% have access to critical sources of protein and nutrients like eggs, meat, or fish.

UNICEF says this kind of food deprivation leaves children up to 50% more likely to suffer from wasting – a life-threatening form of malnutrition that can irreversibly stunt physical growth and brain development.

"Children living in severe food poverty are children living on the brink," said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “Children who consume just two food groups per day, for example, rice and some milk, are up to 50% more likely to experience severe forms of malnutrition,” Russell added.

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The causes of severe food poverty

The food poverty crisis is driven by conflict, climate shocks, inequality and economic turmoil in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, pushing up food prices and the cost of living.

In conflict zones like Somalia and the Gaza Strip, access to food for children has reached crisis levels. Over 80% of Somalia’s caregivers in vulnerable communities reported their child had gone an entire day without eating.

While, in the Gaza Strip, 9 out of 10 children are surviving on just two or fewer food groups due to the collapse of food and health systems amidst hostilities and restrictions on humanitarian aid.

While nearly half of severe child food poverty is driven by household income poverty, over 97 million affected children live in relatively wealthier households. For this group, the key barriers include unaffordable nutritious options and a lack of awareness about giving children a nutritious and balanced diet.

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Solutions to child food poverty

UNICEF’s report highlights that progress is possible even in regions facing challenges. For example, Nepal cut severe child food poverty from 20% to 8% over the past decade, while Burkina Faso halved it from 67% to 32%. Peru has kept it below 5% despite prolonged economic decline, and Rwanda reduced it from 20% to 12%.

Where has severe child food poverty fallen during the last decade?
Some, but not enough, progress has been made in reducing child food poverty. Image: UNICEF

However, there is no consistent pattern of child food poverty reduction at a global level, as the chart above shows.

To accelerate action, UNICEF is calling for measures to fundamentally transform food systems and make nutritious diets more accessible and affordable. The agency says health systems must provide essential nutrition services and dietary education to those most vulnerable to food poverty.

The Alliance is working to advance national food systems transformation by coordinating "flagship initiatives" that support countries in developing and implementing investment plans and strategies.

Our traction to date
The Forum’s Food Action Alliance champions transformative food system change. Image: World Economic Forum

These initiatives mobilize partnerships to address issues like food affordability, availability of nutritious options, promotion of healthy diets, and more.

For instance, flagships could help fortify local food value chains to increase supplies of fruits, vegetables, dairy, eggs and other nutrient-rich foods for young children.

With child malnutrition already exacting an estimated $3.5 trillion per year globally in costs and losses, the immense human and economic stake in addressing child food poverty could not be clearer.

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