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UNICEF and nutrition security in a crisis of food

© UNICEF Myanmar

For the past year and especially since the beginning of 2008, rising food and energy prices have planted seeds of apprehension and sometimes trouble around the world. The prices of rice and wheat, among other staples, have doubled  while the costs of meat, vegetables, cooking oil and fuel soared simultaneously.

The economic, social and political implications are challenging enough. But in the developing world where countries continue to struggle against widespread poverty, prevailing poor nutrition and low educational achievements, the increased pressure on the survival and development among already-vulnerable groups is the prime concern for UNICEF and its sister agencies. In particular are the consequences for children’s health, nutrition and education as well as the health of vulnerable women.   

Hardest hit are those who spend a significant proportion of household income on food, those with limited opportunity to diversify their livelihoods, those who already experience the risk of becoming malnourished and those who lack formal and informal social safety nets to support them. This predominantly, but not entirely, refers to the urban poor, landless rural poor and migrant populations due to their initially poorer health and living conditions, in addition to difficulties accessing public services and welfare.

Evidence shows that to compensate for higher food prices, vulnerable households will try to avoid cutting their calorie consumption by shifting to more affordable but less nutritious substitutes – ending up with a diet that is poorer in vitamins and minerals.  Or families will limit their food consumption to one meal a day. When caregivers seek work or food away from home, the caring and feeding practices for children at home will diminish.  While this won’t necessarily lead to widespread wasting or acute malnutrition, it will result in micronutrient deficiencies, such as anemia, that affect children’s health development and mothers’ well-being.

Rising prices also can lead to lower school attendance (due to inability to pay for fees or children pulled out of school to care for younger siblings when parents leave for additional work), reduced access to health care (inability to pay for user fees) and decreased access to clean water sources (thus increasing health risks).

As well, warned Ann M. Veneman, UNICEF Executive Director, “The increase in food prices may not only slow down progress towards achieving health- and nutrition- related Millennium Development Goals but can also reverse or negatively impact child-related social indicators.” Poverty reduction is most likely to be slowed for a year or two also.

The crisis is affecting some countries more than others and specific groups. Many of them have been identified, though ongoing monitoring systems remain on the alert for others. UNICEF has targeted five groups: i) children already with severe, moderate or acute malnutrition or ii) children with chronic conditions, such as malaria, HIV or AIDS; iii) children younger than 2 years; iv) children aged 2–5 years who are vulnerable to under-nutrition; and v) pregnant or lactating women.


The crisis is both a short-term and long-term problem.

Among the global responses, the United Nations Secretary-General created an inter-agency task force on food security and to develop a common strategy and framework for coordinated action. UNICEF is an active member of that group.

UNICEF brings to the crisis response its perspective on nutrition security: Adequate food is necessary but is insufficient on its own to prevent nutritional deterioration.  Children must have secure access to food, coupled with a healthy environment that includes access to health care, water and adequate care.

In East Asia and the Pacific, as well as globally, UNICEF is working with partner agencies such as the World Bank, the World Food Programme and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO) to deal with the challenges in a region that generally does not suffer from food shortages.
Lessons from past economic crises suggest that large-scale impact patterns may not surface. Although there is also evidence that they may be hard to discern. The extent of effects on children in various geographical locations and socioeconomic backgrounds will vary. Even within the urban poor, circumstances differ depending on the country. For example, in 1997–1998 when food prices also shot up dramatically, urban dwellers in Indonesia suffered a sharper expenditure drop than rural areas, while in Thailand, traditionally poorest regions and the rural Northeast were hit the hardest. 

The Asian financial of 1997–1998 crisis illustrated that household coping strategies can sustain considerable pressure for a while. But for how long this time?

The East Asia–Pacific region embraces 13 countries and 14 Pacific islands, all of which are developing nations; nine fall under the least-developed country category.  In this region, malnutrition is still widespread. And inappropriate child-care practices, such as early complementary feeding, late initiation and early termination of the breastfeeding period, coupled with inadequate nutritional understanding, cast a darker shadow across the present context of rising food and energy prices.


Many countries have just started building up their social protection systems, while others are striving to strengthen and expand their existing social safety nets to better target and support the vulnerable. The most common governmental reaction so far in the East Asia and Pacific region has been price controls, subsidies, raised and lower taxes, administrative measures and safety-net programmes such as cash transfers.

Stable social protection schemes to replace temporary emergency response ( price control policies) are taking shape in several countries, such as Cambodia, China (cash transfers), Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam (health care financing).

Even with the policy interventions starting to take effect, most nations still struggle to generate evidence and evidence-based responses that will deliver high-quality, targeted services to the vulnerable.

For aid and development agencies such as UNICEF, the long-standing effort to protect child health and nutrition will continue with the expansion and enhancement of programmes already in place. Impact evaluations are ongoing.

Other actions encompass: 

  •  strengthen the monitoring systems and assessment of the nutritional status and other impacts and mapping vulnerabilities;
  • advocacy for the protection of children, scaling up national nutrition programmes and supporting health interventions, including promoting optimum breastfeeding and complementary feeding practices as well as school feeding programmes;
  • improving people’s access to water, sanitation and hygiene awareness and children’s access to education.

UNICEF is working with governments and other partners to assess the need for short-, medium- and long-term interventions. The most urgent priority is to help children who are already malnourished and prevent the nutrition situation of affected populations from worsening.

While food and energy prices triggered this situation, the problems are far more complex. During an emergency panel discussion on the humanitarian challenges related to global food aid”, John Holmes, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the world is looking at more than a food price crisis. It is a food-production crisis, a food-aid crisis and a food-security crisis. They are linked and need to be confronted in a way that resolves any immediate hunger needs and still responds to the deeper roots of the problem.
To be effective, the response needs to go beyond traditional humanitarian boundaries by targeting nutrition, agricultural development, health and livelihoods in addition to food aid, he said.

 1. FAO, April 2008, Crop Prospects and Food Situation, Rome. Rice price increased 98% between March 2007 – March 2008, while wheat price went up by 130%.
*This report draws on analysis by Phuong Ta in an unpublished UNICEF social policy review of the food crisis.

  2. Gragnolati (2001)






Related documents

• Briefing on the Global Food Crisis at the Congressional Children’s Caucus, Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health by Annalies Borrel, Chief, Humanitarian Section UNICEF (8 May).
• Indonesia economic crisis in the 1990s (Innocenti Working paper: ‘Beyond Krismon’ and country office annual reports from 1998 , 1999
• Harnessing Globalisation for Children: A report to UNICEF by Andrea Cornia on the impact of globalization on children which includes a case study on the Asian economic crisis.

Related links

• The UN Secretary-General’s High Level Task Force on the Food Security Crisis:  This site offers news and useful links on the food security crisis issue, upcoming events and key documents.
• UNICEF and the food crisis 
• Nutrition situation in region
• Child Rights Information Network bulletin (CRINMail) special edition on food prices and children (24 April 2008).
• The Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) report of the Task Force on the Global Food Crisis Core Findings and Recommendations (July 2008).

Discussion forums on rising food prices

• Rising Food Prices: What Should Be Done? Blog World Hunger- International Food Policy Research Institute
• Soaring Food Prices Forum FAO
• Food crisis is a chance to reform global agriculture The Economists' Forum

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