Reimagine Maternal and Child Nutrition in a post-COVID-19 World

The pandemic raises the stakes for child nutrition.

Roland Kupka, Regional Nutrition Adviser
A girl in Mongolia eats a carrot
21 October 2020

Children growing up in East Asia and Pacific far too often fail to attain their right to adequate nutrition. They are affected by high rates of undernutrition - stunting and wasting and deficiencies in vitamins and minerals. As these forms of undernutrition linger, so do rapid increases in childhood overweight and obesity.

Those affected by malnutrition do not reach their full potential. Some forms of malnutrition, such as wasting, are a significant public health risk even in upper-middle-income countries and needlessly put the lives of countless children at risk. At the same time, changes in diets favouring highly processed, unhealthy foods affects the long-term health of the region’s children because of the looming prospect of lifelong increased risks of overweight, obesity, and diet-related non-communicable diseases.

COVID-19 further raises the stakes for child nutrition. Even though children are less likely to fall ill, they are the hidden victims of the pandemic. In particular, mitigation measures to contain it have had worrying impacts on loss of income, weakening of food systems, reduced access to antenatal care, other health services, and education opportunities. While access and affordability to nutritious foods may become more restricted, children are falling prey to actions of the food industry though inappropriate marketing of unhealthy foods. The promotion of inexpensive readily available unhealthy foods is especially disturbing because overweight, obesity, and diet-related non- communicable diseases worsen COVID-19 related outcomes.

The pandemic does not just present a challenge to maternal and child nutrition, but also offers opportunities. Countries throughout East Asia and Pacific have begun to accelerate changes to prioritize children with the greatest needs. These actions put us on a path to reimagine the diets, services and practices that children require to support adequate nutrition.

Further support is needed to advance with this agenda. Building on previous work, UNICEF has identified the following critical actions:  

Empower people, particularly adolescents, to demand nutritious food. Demand affects supply as food producers respond to consumers’ behaviours and aspirations. When healthy options are affordable, convenient, and desirable, parents and caregivers make better food choices for their children. Young consumers should be provided with the knowledge, tools and platforms to make their voices heard and to inspire change. Work is ongoing to draw on the popularity of celebrity chefs and social influencers to create demand for nutritious food.

Drive food suppliers to provide nutritious food. Demand alone is not enough: Healthy food must also be available, affordable, safe, and convenient. Food producers and suppliers have a key role to play, and so do governments, which must create a level playing field for all producers and suppliers, ensuring their actions align with children’s best interests. As a sign of such commitment, ASEAN countries will develop regional guidance and minimum standards on the use of food fortification to ensure staple foods provide essential micronutrients to prevent deficiencies across populations.

Build healthy food environments. The food environment is where children and their caregivers interact with the food system. While the forces of supply and demand shape food environments, context-appropriate actions such as mandatory labelling and protection against exploitative marketing can help create food environments conducive to providing nutritious diets for children. In the context of COVID-19, the importance of maintaining healthy school food environments throughout the region, as well as to spur home-delivery services, and convenience stores into making healthier food options available, has become particularly relevant.  

Mobilize supportive systems, including through technology. In addition to food systems, four other key areas must be mobilized to deliver nutrition services, improve practices and achieve outcomes at scale. Health, water and sanitation, education and especially social protection systems must all deliver interventions in a coordinated fashion to address the challenges posed by COVID-19. To support these actions, emerging technologies help expand the reach and effectiveness of nutrition services in the region. For example, e-learning platforms make it possible to rapidly scale up skills building for health workers in remote areas. Mobile technology can be used to provide remote support for mothers not able to reach health centres for face to face counselling. Likewise, the expansion of maternal and child cash transfers, are essential to combat the economic impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable households while providing an opportunity to link the provision of essential health and nutrition services to young children and their mothers.

Gather good quality data and evidence. Lack of adequate data prevents governments from responding to fluctuating drivers of malnutrition with effective policies, strategies and programmes. Accurate and timely data is needed to understand the context specific barriers, enablers and pathways to address malnutrition in all its forms, take coordinated, evidence-based action, and hold all actors accountable. In East Asia and Pacific, the use of technology offers a tremendous opportunity to gather data at scale and provide a voice from populations most affected. Technology also provides a voice to the underrepresented populations of migrants and those who live in temporary accommodation.  

UNICEF East Asia and Pacific works across the region and with the ASEAN Secretariat to generate evidence, provide thought leadership, and offer technical assistance to governments and our partners.  Over the coming months, we are poised to share the experiences from this work in the hope that it will inform actions to reimagine diets, services, and practices for good nutrition for all children in a post-COVID-19 World.