1 in 6 children in the Pacific region live in severe child food poverty due to hardship, inequity, and climate crises – UNICEF

Children experiencing this level of food poverty are more likely to suffer from malnutrition, new analysis finds

10 June 2024
A child takes a nutritious break from playing with other children on Abatao Island in North Tarawa, Kiribati, while enjoying a coconut.
UNICEF/UN0659771/Chudeau
A child takes a nutritious break from playing with other children on Abatao Island in North Tarawa, Kiribati, while enjoying a coconut.

NEW YORK/SUVA, 7 June 2024 – Around 181 million children worldwide, including 1 in 6 children under 5 years of age in the Pacific region*, are experiencing severe child food poverty. This makes them up to 50 per cent more likely to experience wasting, as well as deficiencies in micronutrients which are immediate life-threatening forms of malnutrition - a new UNICEF report reveals today.


For the first time, Child Food Poverty: Nutrition Deprivation in Early Childhood analyses the impacts and causes of dietary deprivation among the world’s youngest people in nearly 100 countries - including six Pacific Island countries - and across income groups. It warns that millions of children under the age of five are unable to access and consume a nutritious and diverse diet to sustain optimal growth and development in early childhood and beyond.

Children who consume, at most, two of eight defined food groups are considered to be in severe child food poverty. One out of six children in the Pacific region are in in this situation. These children are fed only breastmilk/milk and/or a starchy staple, such as rice, maize, or wheat. Overall, from the nearly 100 countries analyzed, less than 10 per cent of the children living in severe child food poverty are fed fruits and vegetables. Less than 5 per cent are fed nutrient-dense foods such as eggs, fish, poultry, or meat.

“Children living in severe child food poverty are children living on the brink. Right now, that is the reality for millions of young children, and this can have an irreversible negative impact on their survival, growth and brain development,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “Children who consume just two food groups per day, for example rice and some milk, are up to 50 per cent more likely to experience severe forms of malnutrition.”


The report warns that while countries are still recovering from the socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of growing inequities, conflicts, and the climate crisis have pushed food prices and the cost of living to record high levels.

In Kiribati, a country experiencing high impact of the climate crisis, including drought and high sea level rise, 35 per cent of children are living in severe child food poverty and in the most vulnerable communities. Kiribati is followed by the Republic of Marshall Islands with 29 per cent, Samoa with 23 per cent, Tuvalu with 14 per cent, Tonga with 13 per cent and Fiji with 8 per cent.

“Of the 1,700 children under five who die in the Pacific every year, 80 per cent of them die before their first birthday,” said UNICEF Pacific Representative, Jonathan Veitch. “Many of these children die from nutrition related illnesses that are rooted in a lack of access to healthy and affordable food, under resourced healthcare systems as well as a lack of awareness of healthy eating habits among children, their families and communities across the Pacific.”

From the approximate 100 countries analyzed, the report finds nearly half (46 per cent) of all cases of severe child food poverty are among poor households where income poverty is likely to be a major driver, while 54 per cent – or 97 million children – live in relatively wealthier households, among whom poor food environments and feeding practices are the main drivers of food poverty in early childhood.


Several factors are fueling the child food poverty crisis globally, including food systems that fail to provide children with nutritious, safe, and accessible options, families’ inability to afford nutritious foods, and parent’s inability to adopt and sustain positive child feeding practices. In many contexts, cheap, nutrient-poor, and unhealthy ultra-processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages are aggressively marketed to parents and families and are the new norm for feeding children. These unhealthy foods and beverages are fed to an alarming proportion of young children experiencing child food poverty - displacing more nutritious and healthier foods from their daily diets.

Governments in the Pacific must act now to tackle the food security crisis, including by putting in place policies, regulations to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding as well as control marketing of unhealthy foods. They must incentivize healthier food options, redesign pre-school, primary school and high school feeding programmes, including devising new guidelines for food in and around educational institutions. The food system, as a whole, has to be improved with the purpose of preventing all forms of malnutrition.

UNICEF is working in the Pacific in collaboration with relevant ministries to improve the quality of health and nutrition services - preventative, promotive, and curative. This also includes improving polices and regulations for a better food system that promotes healthier food options.

Specifically, UNICEF works with these ministries, to implement quality high impact nutrition interventions as well as promote policies and regulations which are more responsive to nutrition.

To end child food poverty, UNICEF calls on governments, development and humanitarian organizations, donors, civil society and the food and beverage industry to urgently:

  • Transform food systems by putting regulations in place to control the marketing of unhealthy food so that nutritious, diverse, and healthy foods are the most accessible, affordable, and desirable option for caregivers to feed young children.
  • Leverage health systems to deliver essential nutrition services to prevent and treat malnutrition in early childhood, including support for community health and nutrition workers to counsel parents and families on child feeding and care practices.
  • Activate social protection systems that integrate nutrition, agriculture, and health to address income poverty through social transfers (cash, food, and vouchers), so as to be responsive to the food and nutrition needs of vulnerable children and their families.


To accelerate actions to prevent, detect and treat severe child food poverty and malnutrition, the Child Nutrition Fund (CNF) was launched last year by UNICEF, with the support of the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF). The CNF is a UNICEF-led multi-partner financing mechanism that incentivizes domestic investments to end child malnutrition. UNICEF urges governments, donors, and financial partners to support the CNF and prioritise sustainable policies and practices to end severe child food poverty and malnutrition. 
 

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Notes to Editors:

 

*Includes only Pacific Island countries analyzed in the Report including Kiribati, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Tuvalu, Tonga, and Fiji:

 SevereModerateSevere & Moderate
Kiribati355691.0
Republic of Marshall Islands293665.0
Samoa235780.0
Tuvalu145771.0
Tonga133447.0
Fiji83341.0
AVERAGE154165.8


Download the full report

Categories of child food poverty 
If children are fed:
0–2 food groups/day, they are living in severe child food poverty,

3–4 food groups/day, they are living in moderate child food poverty,

5 or more food groups/day, they are not living in child food poverty.

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Media contacts

Zubnah Khan
Communication Officer
UNICEF Pacific
Tel: +679 330 0439 Ext. 175
Tel: 9988137
Nadia Samie-Jacobs
Communication Specialist
UNICEF
Tel: +1 845 760 2615

About UNICEF

UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.

For more information about UNICEF and its work for children, visit https://www.unicef.org/pacificislands/

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