What will children be eating in a post-COVID world?

An East Asia and Pacific perspective.

Fiona Watson
Mother giving porridge mixed with micronutrient powders
UNICEF/UN0316934/Pasqualli

27 April 2020

Walk along any street in Bangkok and even in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, there’s a good chance you will come across an open air food market humming with activity. Stalls heaped with multi-coloured fruit and vegetables, fresh fish, meat, and sacks of rice jostle for space with vendors selling all manner of freshly prepared foods to take away. But these scenes of normality and plenty hide a very different reality.

COVID-19 is having a devastating effect on people and threatening to disrupt the food system across East Asia and Pacific. What does this mean for the future and what can be done to protect and promote nutritious, safe and sustainable diets for children and their families in a post-COVID world?

COVID-19’s impact on access to healthy food

There is enough food for the moment, but a report from Food Industry Asia predicts that food supply chains in the region will become increasingly strained due to shortages of labour and agricultural inputs. Fruit and vegetables that are labour-intensive to produce and perishable, are likely to suffer the most severe shortages: farmers are already reported to be dumping vegetable crops due to restrictions on movement. The poor and urban populations are likely to be particularly hard hit. 

Reduced working hours and unemployment are now a reality for tens of millions of people and, although many countries have responded by expanding social protection programmes, many families are struggling financially and the long-term economic forecast is grim.

The World Bank predicts that an additional 11 million people in South East Asia and Pacific could fall into poverty in 2020. The Food and Agricultura Organisation (FAO) expects dietary patterns to change: less nutrient-rich meat, fish, fruit and vegetables and more cheaper staples and highly processed foods. Euromonitor International has reported a surge of demand in packaged ‘shelf stable’, highly processed products and manufacturers have responded by increasing supply. In Thailand, for example, instant noodle production is increasing in response to panic buying in February and March.

A trend towards fast food

A growing appetite for highly processed and ‘fast foods’ was evident in the region before the crisis, with instant noodles, pizza, burger and sugary drink companies all holding important shares of the market. Convenience stores have become major players due to low pricing and sales of single-portion meals.

The trend has been intensified by the current crisis, with people opting for ‘comforting’ snack items and fast foods. Some food and beverage companies are taking the opportunity to promote their brands, with companies serving meals to frontline workers and local communities.

Euromonitor International predicts that small to medium ‘health and wellness’ brands, which had taken a share of the regional market over the last 4-5 years, will struggle to survive. In contrast, the packaged food multinationals producing highly processed food and drinks have more resources to weather the storm and are well placed to expand their market share.

Madeline Mona, 5, holds freshly-picked sweet potatoes at her family's farm in Solomon Islands
UNICEF/UN0343019/Naftalin

Food purchasing patterns

The ubiquitous ‘wet’ markets selling fresh produce (named after the melted ice used to preserve goods and wash the floors) have come under scrutiny during the pandemic. FAO has long been calling for improvements in food safety. Most of these markets do not trade in exotic or wild animals. They are in fact an important source of cheap, nutritious and fresh food, critical to the livelihoods of independent smallholder farmers and serve as a hub for communities.

A study in Hanoi, found that 70 per cent of food purchased by the urban poor was from traditional ‘wet’ markets while in China, ‘wet’ markets account for between 30-59 per cent of food purchases. Foods bought from western-style supermarkets and convenience stores may be safer, but purchases are more often highly processed and expensive.

The pandemic has also stimulated a major change in food purchasing patterns with millions more people now resorting to on-line food shopping. Home delivery was already booming in the region but the lockdowns have helped the industry grow further. In China, on-line markets skyrocketed with the most popular online food markets experiencing sales boosts of 470 per cent in 2019. A  survey by McKinsey showed that this trend will continue even after the pandemic ends.

Changing diets

With more people falling into poverty, it will be difficult for many families to afford a variety of foods. It will mean more people and more children consuming staples such as rice or noodles with cheaper, less nutritious foods. A higher consumption of highly processed foods will lead to increased levels of overweight and obesity – particularly worrying in a region which is already experiencing the most rapidly growing rates in the world.

Opportunities for a fresh approach

The COVID-19 crisis has brought huge uncertainty, but it also provides an opportunity for a fresh approach to promote nutritious, safe and sustainable diets for children and their families.

Critical to this agenda will be to:

1.    Drive food suppliers to provide nutritious food. 

  • Increase efforts to manage ‘wet markets’ to supply safe and nutritious foods. 
  • Engage with convenience stores, home-delivery services and e-commerce as platforms to promote and offer healthy food, explore ways to link them with small and medium enterprises and producers supplying nutritious foods.

2.    Build healthy food environments. 

  • Ensure that convenience stores, e-commerce and home-delivery services are covered in legislation and regulation such as labelling and marketing.

3.    Empower people, particularly young people to demand nutritious food.

  • Provide young consumers with the knowledge, the tools and the platforms to make their voices heard and to inspire change. 

4.    Mobilize supportive systems. 

  • Support innovative forms of social protection that increase direct access to fresh and nutritious foods by the poor. 

5.    Gather good quality data and evidence.

  • Support bespoke studies to better understand the new food landscape and to identify effective policies and actions.