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1 in 4 children globally lives in severe child food poverty, UNICEF report says


Millions of kids around the world are getting very little nutrition. In parts of East Africa, babies are fed some breast milk and a bit of porridge, in Yemen, a paste with flour and water, and in conflict areas like Gaza, just raw lemon and weeds. And a report by UNICEF looked at what children under 5 are being fed and what it means for their growth. And here to talk about the results, NPR global health correspondent Fatma Tanis. What I read already is awful to hear. What has the report found, Fatma?

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: So UNICEF says that 1 in 4 children under 5 are living in severe food poverty. We're talking about 181 million kids who are only getting to eat two or less food groups. So maybe they're only getting some milk and some carbs all day. But experts I spoke with said those are mostly empty calories on their own. You know, children need nutritious food filled with vitamins in order to have healthy growth and build strong immune systems. So the numbers are concerning.

MARTÍNEZ: So why aren't the kids getting enough food?

TANIS: Well, experts say it's part of a global food and nutrition crisis, you know, that's been exacerbated by the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and global inflation. All of that has disrupted food supplies and raised prices. Then there's poverty in conflict, which, even though conflict is not the largest factor, it does cause some of the extreme situations like Somalia and Sudan.

And UNICEF's report highlights Gaza. For example, before the war, 13% of children in Gaza were living in severe food poverty. But since last December, which is just three months into the war, they've seen an extreme spike, bringing that number to 90%, which is one of the highest ever seen. Now, experts say there's another major factor for food poverty, which is the aggressive marketing strategies for unhealthy foods that tend to be cheaper, more attractive and more accessible than nutritious foods.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So with all that, what's at stake, then, for the 181 million children?

TANIS: Quite a lot because UNICEF's analysis shows that those children are 50% more at risk of malnutrition, which stunts growth and can be life-threatening. Here's the lead author of the report, Harriet Torlesse.

HARRIET TORLESSE: Children who become wasted or stunted in early life - we know that these children don't do as well at school. They earn less income as adults, and they struggle to escape from income poverty.

TANIS: And their children are also likely to suffer from malnutrition. So because malnutrition prevents kids from reaching their full potential, from, you know, contributing to the economy, it has far-reaching implications not only for families, but for a country's productivity and development as well.

MARTÍNEZ: Any good news at all from this report?

TANIS: There is, actually. You know, several low-income countries like Nepal, Burkina Faso and Rwanda have made significant progress in cutting child food poverty rates. And they did that by government and civil society initiatives like investing in local agriculture, becoming less reliant on imported foods. Some countries have taken on the issue of processed foods by regulating labels. So they list salt and sugar contents. And nutrition experts told me that that kind of regulation actually makes a difference, and they hope more countries will adapt those policies.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR global health correspondent Fatma Tanis. Thank you very much.

TANIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.