Nourishing the next generation: the role of the food system in tackling childhood malnutrition
Malnutrition in children and young people continues to be a global challenge. What is the role of the food system in ensuring healthy diets are available, accessible, and affordable for all?
Childhood malnutrition has a staggering impact on our world. With almost 40 million children worldwide classified as overweight or obese (1), and undernutrition being linked to an estimated 45% of deaths among children under five (1), we all have a responsibility to address this critical issue. Fortunately, there are many identified solutions for reducing the risks for present and future generations.
What is childhood malnutrition?
Childhood malnutrition generally occurs when a child does not receive the necessary nutrients needed for healthy growth and development, whether it be via undernutrition, an unbalanced diet, or overconsumption (1). The impacts of malnutrition can be long lasting, with negative effects on physical and cognitive development and increased risks for chronic diseases (1). These effects can lead to significant costs for health and social care systems in the long term, making it even more crucial to address the problem so that all children have the opportunity to reach their full potential and lead healthier lives.
What’s more, the level of childhood malnutrition is not evenly distributed across Europe (2), meaning there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and EU initiatives should reflect this regional variation. Countries in Eastern and Southern Europe, for example, generally have higher rates of malnutrition compared to the rest of Europe. There is also variation at country level, with four Southern European countries on course to meet targets to reduce childhood stunting (children being too short for their age), one experiencing some progress, two showing no progress or worsening, and seven with no data at all (2). This is exacerbated further by inequalities such as poverty, access to nutritious food and healthcare, as well as cultural factors and dietary needs.
Tackling childhood malnutrition with education
One way to address childhood malnutrition in Europe is through education and engagement with young people. Children and young people are essential stakeholders in the food system and can play a crucial role in shaping healthy food environments. Educating children about nutrition and healthy eating habits can empower them to make informed decisions about their diets and encourage healthy eating habits. In fact, EIT Food research found that 65% of young people feel they did not get enough education on how to eat a healthy, balanced diet while at school (3), highlighting a clear need for intervention in this area.
Involving young people in food-related initiatives such as school gardens and healthy, sustainable meal programmes can help to create a sense of ownership and responsibility for their food choices. The Food Imaginarium project, for example, offered teachers and children virtual reality tools to talk about food - using all their senses, imagination and creativity. Initiatives like this can foster a sense of community and social connection around healthy and sustainable eating habits.
Education initiatives such as FutureLearn’s online food system courses also aim to equip young people with the resources and information they need to navigate topics such as superfood myths and truths and understanding food labels. Engaging with children directly in schools is also a key route to tackling childhood malnutrition. The Los Salvacomidas project, for example, brings healthy and sustainable food to life through games and challenges, activities, and educational resources. Take a look at some of the resources here (in Spanish).
Addressing childhood malnutrition with policy
Alongside education, it is also crucial to address the systemic factors that contribute to childhood malnutrition, such as poverty and food insecurity. Policies and programmes that address these issues, such as social safety nets and food assistance programmes, can help to ensure that all children have access to nutritious food. But tailoring these to national, local and individual needs can be challenging and it is important to acknowledge that not all children are impacted equally by childhood malnutrition.
Children from low-income families and those living in poverty, for example, are at higher risk of malnutrition (4), and policy should be adapted at local level to reflect this. Contributing factors include inadequate diet plans, lower education levels, poor living standards, and limited access to health facilities, safe water, proper sanitation, and hygiene (4). The International Association of Students in Agricultural and Related Sciences (IAAS), the largest student organisation in the field of agriculture and related sciences worldwide, aims to bridge this gap by knowledge sharing and collaborating. With approximately 10,000 student members in over 50 countries, the IAAS brings together students studying, majoring or researching in agriculture and related areas to attend key meetings and events to help influence policy and create the leaders of tomorrow. Take a look at some of their upcoming events here.
On 1 April 2016, the UN General Assembly proclaimed 2016–2025 the United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition for addressing all forms of malnutrition. It sets a timeline for implementation of policy commitments to meet a set of global nutrition targets and diet-related non-communicable disease (NCD) targets by 2025. Led by the WHO and the FAO, the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition calls for policy action across six areas:
- Creating sustainable, resilient food systems for healthy diets
- Providing social protection and nutrition-related education for all
- Aligning health systems to nutrition needs
- Ensuring that trade and investment policies improve nutrition
- Building safe and supportive environments for nutrition at all ages
- Strengthening and promoting nutrition governance and accountability, everywhere.
Overcoming childhood malnutrition with innovation
Research and innovation (R&I) also play a key role in reducing the rates of childhood malnutrition in Europe. Solutions that offer personalised nutrition recommendations or tailored food products, for example, or those that aim to improve on-label communication with parents about ingredients, could be key routes for decreasing health inequalities among children.
UK-based Little Inca, for example, is creating a smart baby food product that uses quinoa and other plant-based ingredients to support gut health in babies and infants. Quinoa is rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals, and contains several prebiotics that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria and can modify gut microbiota. In turn, the consumption of quinoa can have a positive impact on the maintenance of intestinal ecosystems, setting the child up for a healthy future. Of course, it is essential to also consider the social and environmental impacts of the rising global popularity of quinoa on the communities – mainly in the Andean region of South America – that have historically relied on it as a staple food source.
Further investment is needed in nutrition R&I for solutions to be scaled at speed. Food system stakeholders must work together to create healthy food environments and address the root causes of malnutrition while developing tangible policy and supporting education and innovation programmes. Together we can ensure that all children have the opportunity to reach their full potential and lead healthy, fulfilling lives.