The Government, the private sector, civil society organisations and agencies like the UNWFP can together achieve zero hunger and improved nutrition, leaving no one behind
With remarkable progress in foodgrain production, India has made a successful transition from being a food-deficit nation to a food surplus one. However, efforts to address malnutrition have not manitained the same pace. According to the latest Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey, 34.7 per cent of children under five years of age are stunted, 17.3 per cent suffer from wasting and 33 per cent are underweight. There is also a high prevalence of anaemia and micronutrient deficiency disorders. This is the result of a multitude of underlying factors, including lack of access to health and nutrition services caused by social, economic and geographical barriers, and inhibiting social norms and structures. Climate change further exacerbates the existing threats to food security. With one decade left to achieve the ambitious goals of Agenda 2030, which include an end to hunger and all forms of malnutrition, bold action by a variety of actors — including the Government, civil society and UN agencies — is needed.
The strong policies and programmes put in place by the Government, including the implementation of the National Food Security Act, 2013, the launch of the National Nutrition Strategy, 2017 and the flagship initiative of POSHAN Abhiyaan to improve nutrition in children, adolescents, pregnant and nursing women, are leading the way. Local action at the State level, with remarkable progress made by the 117 aspirational districts, is accelerating the process. Several States across India are in the process of implementing reforms and policies to address food insecurity and malnutrition. If maximised, these have the potential to transform the current status of malnutrition in the country. The use of technology to improve efficiency of food safety nets is one example of this. While, at the Central level, the Government is implementing the One Nation, One Ration Card scheme, which allows migrants to access their public distribution rations anywhere in the country, States like Odisha have deployed mechanisms that ensure proper targetting of food even in case of authentication failures. Similarly, Uttar Pradesh has pioneered the use of an interactive voice response system that not only allows beneficiaries to register their complaints but also provides accurate and updated information to them.
Fortification of Government-approved commodities within the social safety net programmes can improve nutritional outcomes. This has been initiated with the introduction of the Central scheme on rice fortification and is being implemented across the aspirational districts in several States where the foodgrain is fortified with essential vitamins and minerals to address anaemia caused by micro-nutrient deficiency, especially among adolescent girls. Going forward, fortification has the potential to have better results if implemented on a mandatory basis.
The mid-day meal programme provides daily meals to 120 million schoolchildren aged between six and 14, with an objective to improve school enrollment, retention and attendance. It also aims to reduce classroom hunger to enable better learning. These meals have been further enhanced in some cases with the diversification of menus to include locally-procured green vegetables as well as milk, eggs and fortified foods, and the promotion of kitchen gardens. Nutrition during the first 1,000 days of life has a profound impact on childrens’ ability to grow, learn and thrive. Adequate nutritional intake through improved infant and young child practices, enhanced nutritive value of food for expecting and nursing mothers and complementary food for children can prevent malnutrition. The Government of Kerala is working to enhance the nutritional value of food provided to children at Anganwadis by making take-home rations for children between six months and three years of age safe and more nutritious, and fortifying rice used to serve hot cooked meals to children aged three to six years. But more can be done. Identifying food consumption patterns and mapping locally-available nutritious food commodities such as millets, green vegetables and fruits, could lead to the diversification of food baskets under existing food security nets, which would further improve the dietary intake of vulnerable families and promote farming of indigenous climate-resilient crops.
In order to improve consumption patterns, diversify diets and enhance nutritional outcomes, it is crucial to focus on knowledge sharing. Behaviour change communication strategies to promote healthy eating habits can leverage the cultural and social aspiration of communities to encourage them to choose nutritious and appropriate diets. Eradicating malnutrition is an ambitious target, which individual entities cannot achieve alone. The private sector can bring in efficiencies and innovative solutions, civil society organisations have a key role to connect communities to the initiatives being designed and implemented for the most vulnerable and agencies like WFP can provide technical support and share international experience and best practices. Together, we can reach the goal of achieving zero hunger and improved nutrition, leaving no one behind.
(The writer is Representative and Country Director, UN World Food Programme in India)