Children, food and nutrition: Growing well in a changing world

Henrietta H. Fore Our Children, Our Future

In the spoonful a mother or father feeds to a toddler, food is love.

In the feast a family cooks for a child’s coming of age, food is community. In the shouts and laughter of teenagers sharing snacks after school, food is joy. And for every child and young person everywhere, food is life — a fundamental right and a foundation of healthy nutrition and sound physical and mental development.

Sadly, as this State of the World’s Children report shows, far too many of our children and young people are not getting the diets they need, which is undermining their capacity to grow, develop and learn to their full potential.

That hurts not just individual children and young people, it hurts us all.

This situation forces us to ask some difficult questions: How is it in the 21st century that we still have 149 million children under five with stunting and almost 50 million with wasting?

How is it possible that overweight and obesity in children and young people are continuing to rise, and increasingly among the poor?

And why are healthy diets becoming more expensive while unhealthy, non-nutritious diets are becoming cheaper?

Nutrition has long been at the core of UNICEF’s work. In 2018, we helped provide life-saving therapeutic feeding for 4,1 million children with severe acute malnutrition; we improved the quality of diets for over 15,6 million children through home-based fortification; we supported programmes to prevent anaemia and other forms of malnutrition for 58 million adolescent girls and boys; and we ensured that over 300 million children received services for the prevention of stunting and other forms of malnutrition.

Nutrition has also long been key to our thought leadership. In 1990, our pioneering malnutrition framework broke new ground in setting out the multiple causes of poor nutrition. In 2019, we have rethought our framework to emphasise what creates good nutrition — from the diets of children and women to the care they benefit from, the food environments in which they live, and the ways in which our societies underpin the right to adequate nutrition through our values and political commitment. Each of these determinants presents an opportunity to improve the nutrition of our children, young people and women.

As Executive Director of UNICEF and Chair of the Lead Group of the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement, I want to emphasise again my commitment, and the commitment of UNICEF, to use all of these opportunities to work for better nutrition for every child, especially in the crucial first 1 000 days — from conception to age two years — and during adolescence, the two unparalleled windows of opportunity. We are underscoring this commitment by launching this report along with UNICEF’s new nutrition strategy, which sets out our priorities and plans to improve the nutrition of children, young people and women, in the years to come.

We already know so much of what works to prevent malnutrition in all its forms, from conception, through early childhood and into adolescence. But this is a battle we cannot win on our own.

It needs the political determination of national governments, backed by clear financial commitments, as well as policies and incentives that encourage the private sector’s investment in nutritious, safe and affordable food for children, young people, women and families. And, increasingly, it needs a determination to make children’s nutrition a priority across not just the food system, but also in the health, water and sanitation, education and social protection systems. Success in each of these supports success in all.

Young people and women know the value of good nutrition and eating well.

Henrietta H. Fore, UNICEF Executive Director“Eating healthily is being responsible for your own health,” said a 16-year-old girl in China during one of more than 70 workshops organised for this report. In India, a 13-year-old girl told us that “food is important for us so that we are able to study well.” They are clear, too, on the barriers to healthy nutrition: “I don’t have enough money to buy food for me and my baby,” a 20-year-old mother said in Guatemala;

“I lack knowledge about what kinds of food are healthy,” an 18-year-old girl said in Zimbabwe.

Good nutrition paves the way for a fair chance in life. Let us work together to lower these barriers and to ensure that every child, young person and woman has the nutritious, safe, affordable and sustainable diets they need at every moment of life to meet their full potential.

Henrietta H. Fore, UNICEF Executive Director

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