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UC researchers respond to disturbing nutrition report

UNICEF’s shocking 2019 State of the World’s Children report reveals that at least two out of three children in the world are not fed the minimum of a healthy diverse diet. University of Canterbury researchers from the interdisciplinary Food Policy and Wellbeing group comment on the wide-reaching implications.

Dr Kate Prendergast, a Research Fellow with the University of Canterbury’s Food Policy and Wellbeing (FPW) Policy Cluster, is not surprised by the UNICEF finding that 1 in 3 children under five – or over 200 million – are either undernourished or overweight. Dr Prendergast says that “for many families the cost of healthy food means that many children are surviving on high energy, low nutrient foods”. Dr Prendergast says access to healthy food during early childhood is crucial. “Early childhood is a time of rapid physical growth and brain development. What a child eats during these early years can have lifelong consequences on educational attainment and health outcomes.” She says that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to grow up in “food swamps” and face the consequences of malnutrition and obesity. “More needs to be done to ensure that there is equitable access to healthy and affordable foods across our community.”

Dr Rosemarie Martin Research Specialist at the FPW group says the UNICEF report matters because it provides “the most comprehensive assessment yet of the triple burden that children growing up today face of malnutrition, undernutrition, and hidden hunger caused by a lack of essential nutrients”. Dr Martin says that despite its wealth, New Zealand is not immune to problems of poor nutrition. New Zealand needs to make sure that the right foods are accessible to all, including those of limited means. According to the Child Poverty Monitor technical report, one in five New Zealand children live with food insecurity. Food insecurity can lead to seemingly opposite problems, obesity as well as hunger. New Zealand has the 2nd highest obesity rate among children and adolescents among the wealthy countries studied in the UNICEF report.

Associate Professor Bronwyn Hayward a Co-investigator with the FPW group says: “the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 2 (Zero Hunger) includes targets to end hunger, and all forms of malnutrition, particularly as it impacts adolescent girls, by 2030. This UNICEF report is a grim reminder the challenge is getting more difficult not less”.

Professor Steven Ratuva who leads the FPW group says “social protection is now seen as a critical mechanism to address problems such as food insecurity. There are indigenous forms of social protection within Pacific communities, which have often been dismissed. The UNICEF report noted social protection systems were crucial for supporting good nutrition in children, adolescents and women”.

The Food Policy and Wellbeing group is an interdisciplinary research cluster at UC, headed By Professor Steven Ratuva to investigate how sustainable food and good public policy practice can support community wellbeing.

Read the UNICEF State of the World’s Children report East Asian and Pacific region summary.

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