Young children’s diets show no improvement in last decade, ‘could get much worse’ under COVID-19 - UNICEF

During crucial period when children begin to transition to solid foods, just one in three are fed a diet diverse enough to grow well

24 September 2021
Elma Mona, 8, talks to Elijah Babnaa, 6, as she carries a freshly picked watermelon in Koli village, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands.

NEW YORK/SUVA, FIJI, 24 September 2021 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.

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 an ongoing nutrition crisis among the world’s youngest 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 on 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, including 14 Pacific Island countries, the report finds that only half of children aged six 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.

In the Pacific region alone, the proportion of children between six to 23 months consuming diets with the minimum number of recommended food groups ranges from as low as 9.3 per cent in Kiribati to 54.7 per cent in Fiji.

“Young children around the Pacific region are deprived of the diets they need at the time in their life when it matters most,” said UNICEF Pacific Representative, Jonathan Veitch. “As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to exacerbate the difficulties that families face in feeding their young children, it is crucial that every possible action be taken to protect the diets of all children.”

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 their greater need for essential nutrients per kilogram of body weight than at any other time in life.

Globally, UNICEF estimates that more than half of 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 six months and two years, as children’s diets fail to keep pace with their growing nutritional needs. 

A triple burden of malnutrition also faces the Pacific region, with children experiencing stunting, micronutrient deficiencies and overweight or obesity. Stunting is reported to be very high in Solomon Islands and the Republic of Marshall Islands where almost one-third of children are stunted, followed by Nauru and Vanuatu with almost one-quarter of children stunted.

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

  • Increasing the availability and affordability of nutritious foods – including fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish meat and fortified foods – by incentivizing their production, distribution and retailing.


  • Implementing national standards and legislation to protect young children from unhealthy processed and ultra-processed foods and beverages, and to end harmful marketing practices targeting children and families.


  • Increasing the desirability of nutritious and safe foods through multiple communication channels including digital media to reach parents and children with easy to understand, coherent information.

In the Pacific, UNICEF is working with governments and partners to address poor nutrition and health amongst young children through infant and young child feeding counselling, cooking demonstrations, and behaviour change communication targeting the first 1000 days in Kiribati, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

For older children and adolescents, a children’s cooking show called Pacific Kids Food Revolution provides a platform for children to advocate on and support Pacific Island nations to overcome the triple burden of malnutrition. National legislation on breast milk substitutes and marketing of unhealthy food among children in Kiribati, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu are also being updated.


Notes to Editors

Quantitative data on current status, trends and inequities of young children’s diets presented in this report are derived from UNICEF’s global databases, which include only data that are internationally comparable and statistically sound. UNICEF global databases comprise data from 607 nationally representative surveys conducted in 135 countries and territories, representing more than 90 per cent of all children under the age of 2 globally.

About the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit

The UN Food Systems Summit was announced by the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, on World Food Day in October 2020 as a part of the Decade of Action for delivery on the SDGs by 2030. The aim of the Summit is to deliver progress on all 17 of the SDGs through a food systems approach, leveraging the interconnectedness of food systems to global challenges such as hunger, climate change, poverty and inequality. More information about the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit can be found at  

For further information, please contact:

Zubnah Khan, UNICEF Pacific, Tel: +679 9988137,

Helen Wylie, UNICEF New York, Tel: +1 917 244 2215,

Media contacts

Zubnah Khan
Communication Officer
UNICEF Pacific
Tel: +679 330 0439 Ext. 175
Tel: 9988137


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