COVID-19 has exposed the huge gaps in our nutrition security. We need to fix them before it is too late.
The global COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown has not only crippled our economy, it has severely escalated hunger and poverty in every nook and corner, particularly among the poor and weaker sections of our society, with many dying of acute hunger and malnourishment.
Apart from being a major eye-opener on several issues like sanitation and hygiene, it also comes as a wake-up call about the importance a proper policy on nutrition.
The lockdown led to a heightened focus on ensuring food access to vulnerable by both public and private players. The central government announced several interventions like cash transfers, distribution of free gas cylinders and additional food under the Public Distribution System (PDS). Several states introduced measures like doorstep delivery of rations, expanded PDS to non-ration card holders, provision of affordable as well as free cooked meals and delivering mid-day meals at homes. But despite all these steps, hunger does not seem to be a priority in our debates, demands and promises during the ‘normal’ times.
Of course, there are various programs to address food security, like the Public Distribution System (PDS), mid-day meal (MDM) program for government schoolchildren, and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) program, which focuses on providing meals or ration to young children, pregnant and lactating women through anganwadis. Yet according to a 2019 Food and Agriculture Organization report, more than 19 crore people in India are undernourished, which amounts to almost a quarter of the world’s undernourished population.
As per The Global Hunger Index 2019, which ranks nations based on undernourishment, child wasting, stunting and mortality, India is ranked lower than most sub-Saharan African regions, and all of Asia except Afghanistan. Many children and adults have died of starvation. This shows that our efforts have not been enough.. Many families, especially migrant workers, are unable to benefit from the PDS scheme because their ration cards belong to their home states. Many children cannot access anganwadis because they live far away.
The zeal to ensure everyone has access to adequate food must not end with this pandemic. Perhaps some of these ‘emergency’ measures may be required even under normal circumstances given that when food security is still an issue for crores of people.
Food security is not just about filling empty stomachs, but also ensuring that everyone has access to sufficient nourishing food. Along with undernutrition, India is also under the grip of ‘over-nutrition’ and hidden hunger, or nutrient deficiency. According to UNICEF, over 50% Indians are short, thin, overweight or obese, and over 80% suffer from micronutrient deficiency.
But despite these grim numbers, our policy framework seems to treat nutrition as an add-on. States only distribute wheat, rice and sugar under the PDS scheme. Barring a few states, distribution of protein-rich pulses and micronutrient-rich millets, fruits and vegetables are also not included under the scheme. While ICDS and mid-day meal programs try to merge food and nutrition to some extent, they mostly cater to caloric and protein requirements, which do not address micronutrient deficiency.
On the other hand, food-based interventions during the lockdown have been more nutrition-inclusive. Pulses were brought under PDS, and are a common component of ration packets. The Tamil Nadu government initiated preparation and sale of vegetable packets in some remote villages. The Andhra Pradesh government is distributing mixed fruit bags for Rs. 100, while the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) is distributing free milk to children.
If state governments can include nutritious items including those with a shorter shelf-life during the lockdown period, why can’t they do this during regular days as well? For that, it is important that we acknowledge nutrition as an essential component of food security.
The COVID-19 pandemic has proved how eating healthy helps us fight several diseases, including ones that might erupt in the future. Several studies suggest that a strong immune system is the biggest weapon against deadly diseases like the one which are currently dealing with. People affected with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure are all highly susceptible to extreme illness and death due to COVID-19, all of which have strong linkages to diet.
Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are already putting a heavy burden on healthcare systems across the world. More than 70% deaths across the world are due to NCDs, which mostly stem from years of unhealthy living. It is best to start addressing them from a young age. The Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey 2019 reveals that nearly 10% of schoolchildren and adolescents in India are already pre-diabetic, while 5% are overweight, and 5% suffer from blood pressure. This pandemic is a wake up call to bring nutrition to the forefront, and evolve policies that ensure everyone has access to healthy food.
Another factor to consider is the growing prevalence and consumption of junk food, especially ultra-processed food, which has reached alarming levels in India. A Centre for Science and Environment survey (2017) has revealed that more than 50% schoolchildren consume packaged foods on a daily basis. India needs to implement dietary guidelines defining junk food and launch campaigns warning against this danger. With the increasing focus on health and immunity sparked by this pandemic, healthy food is being marketed as a ‘premium’ product for the upper-income consumer.
Along with access, awareness on consumption of healthy foods must be talked about. A dedicated focus on nutrition can go a long way in securing the health of our country, during times of crisis or otherwise. Schools must teach the difference between junk foods and healthy foods as a part of their curriculum.
COVID-19 has clearly exposed the huge gaps in our nutrition programs. We need to address them before it is too late.
(The author is a lawyer and a social entrepreneur. She co-founded Foodshaala Foundation, which gives access to affordable healthy food to children from low-income families through community kitchens)