Children under the age of two are not getting the food or nutrients they need to thrive and grow well, leading to irreversible developmental harm, according to a new report released by UNICEF today.

The report 'Fed to Fail? The crisis of children's diets in early life' released ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit this week warns that rising poverty, inequality, conflict, climate-related disasters, and health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic, are contributing to the ongoing nutrition crisis among the world's youngest, and that has shown little sign of improvement in the last ten years.

"The report's findings are clear: When the stakes are highest, millions of young children are being fed to fail," said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.

"Poor nutritional intake in the first two years of life can irreversibly harm children's rapidly growing bodies and brains, impacting their schooling, job prospects and futures. While we have known this for years, there has been little progress in providing the right kind of nutritious and safe foods for the young. In fact, the ongoing COVID-19 disruptions could make the situation much worse."

In an analysis of 91 countries, the report finds that only half of the children aged 6 to 23 months are being fed the minimum recommended number of meals a day, while just a third consume the minimum number of food groups they need to thrive. Further analysis of 50 countries with available trend data reveals these poor feeding patterns have persisted throughout the last decade.

As COVID-19 continues to disrupt essential services and drives more families into poverty, the report finds that the pandemic is affecting how families feed their children. Data from Indonesia, Nepal, Malawi, Lesotho and Kenya illustrates that the quality of children's diets has deteriorated due to income loss and impact of the pandemic. In Nepal, where the UNICEF Child and Family Tracker Survey has been tracking the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, including family income loss and young children's dietary intake, the CFT recorded significant income loss throughout the pandemic period with one out of three (34 per cent) of families struggling to meet daily food needs and children's dietary diversity remaining the most pressing concern for families across the country.

As per the report, children carry the scars of poor diets and feeding practices for life. An insufficient intake of nutrients found in vegetables, fruits, eggs, fish and meat needed to support growth at an early age puts children at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections and, potentially, death. Children under the age of two are most vulnerable to all forms of malnutrition - stunting, wasting, micronutrient deficiencies, and overweight and obesity - as a result of poor diets, due to greater need of essential nutrients per kilogram of body weight than at any other time in life, as well as lack of health seeking behaviours such as prevention and treatment of illnesses, from their parents. Globally, UNICEF estimates that more than half of the children under the age of five with wasting - around 23 million children - are younger than two years of age, while the prevalence of stunting increases rapidly between 6 months and two years, as children's diets fail to keep pace with their growing nutritional needs.

According to the report, children aged 6-23 months living in rural areas or from poorer households are significantly more likely to be fed poor diets compared to their urban or wealthier peers. In 2020, for example, the proportion of children fed the minimum number of recommended food groups was twice as high in urban areas (39 per cent) than in rural areas (23 per cent). In South Asia (19 per cent), less than one in four young children are being fed a minimally diverse diet.

But change is possible with the right commitment and investments.

Ten countries – Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cote d' Ivoire, Gambia, Kyrgyzstan, the Maldives, Nepal, Sierra Leone and Timor-Leste – have increased the proportion of children consuming foods from the recommended minimum number of food groups by at least 10 percentage points in the last decade. In all regions, investments are needed to ensure that all children benefit from the diverse diets they need to prevent malnutrition, and grow, develop and learn to their full potential, suggested the report.

To deliver nutritious, safe, and affordable diets to every child, the report calls for governments, donors, civil society organisations and development actors to work hand-in-hand to transform food, health and social protection systems by leading key actions.

The suggested actions include increasing the availability and affordability of nutritious foods, and implementing national standards and legislation to protect young children from unhealthy processed foods.

A version of this article appears in the print on September 23 2021, of The Himalayan Times.