Fed to Fail ?
Addressing the Challenge of Children's Diet in Early Life in West and Central Africa
Children under the age of 2 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
While hosting only 11 percent of the world’s children, West and Central Africa’s 24 countries are home to 20 per cent of the global stunting burden. Despite a slight decrease in the prevalence of stunting from 40.4 per cent to 32.7 per cent in the last 20 years, the absolute number of stunted children has gradually increased from 22.4 to 29 million in the region due to population growth.
Children who are undernourished are more likely to die than their well-nourished peers. Those who survive are at a higher risk of undernutrition. The stakes are highest in the first two years of life given insufficient nutrients can irreversibly harm a child’s rapidly growing body and brain, limiting their potential to grow, develop, and fulfil their full potential.
UNICEF is committed to continue to support deliberate policies and integrated programmes to improve young children´s diets in West and Central Africa, including with a special attention to locally produced complementary foods and starting with optimal breastfeeding practices.
Breastfeeding is a vital part of giving every child the healthiest start to life. Today, as a result of collective action supported by UNICEF and partners, the proportion of infants under six months exclusively breastfed has gradually increased in West and Central Africa from 24 per cent in 2010 to 37 per cent in 2020. This remarkable achievement proves that positive change for nutrition is possible at scale.
Nutritious diets in early childhood have the power to shape a healthier future. Yet progress is unacceptably slow and millions of young children in West and Central Africa are being fed to fail. Analyses shows that West and Central Africa is failing to feed children well during the time in their lives when it matters most – before two years of age.
According to UNICEF Fed to Fail Report, in 2020 in West and Central Africa:
- Four in five children between the ages of 6–23 months are not fed the minimum variety of foods needed for healthy growth and development.
- Half of all young children are missing out on the lifelong benefits of the most nutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables and eggs, fish, and meat.
While progress is unacceptably slow, action and promising approaches are being implemented at country level, to make a sustainable difference for children and shape a healthier future in the region.
In Northern Nigeria’s Kano State for instance, mothers’ groups received support from UNICEF for livestock and poultry farming as part of a dietary diversity project to address malnutrition in children aged 6-23 months. This intervention, alongside home vegetable gardening activities, helped ensure a more varied and nutritious diet for children and lactating mothers.
“The need for optimal nutrition has never been greater in West and Central Africa. Progress is unacceptably slow and millions of young children are still missing the right food to ensure not only their survival, but also their optimal growth and development. UNICEF commits to support policies and programmes to improve young children diets in all contexts. UNICEF will engage government, the civil society and the private sector in a renewed partnership to make locally-produced nutritious foods available and affordable at large scale for all children”.
There has been no progress and inequity in improving young children’s diets in the last decade in West and Central Africa.
The percentage of children aged 6-23 months consuming foods from the minimum recommended number of food groups they need to thrive (i.e. minimum dietary diversity) has steadily remained very low – 17 per cent in 2010 and 21 per cent in 2020. The percentage of children aged 6-23 months consuming foods from the minimum recommended number of food groups they need to thrive has fallen significantly by 5-14 percentage points in Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Ghana and São Tomé and Príncipe.
National policies and programmes are falling short on what is needed to address these challenges, leaving families without the essential support they need to feed their children well. No country in West and Central Africa has a comprehensive set of policies and programmes to improve young children’s diets.
Change is possible with the right commitment and investments. Four countries in the region – Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Sierra Leone – have increased the proportion of young children consuming foods from the recommended minimum number of food groups by at least 10 percentage points in the last decade.
Understanding the drivers of young children´s diets in West and Central Africa
In 2019–2020, UNICEF West and Central Africa regional office, together with Penn State University and regional partners, led a regional landscape analysis on the determinants and drivers of young children’s diets. This analysis examined the availability, accessibility and affordability of nutritious diets for young children and the status of national policies, legislation and programmes related to diets and feeding practices. The value chains of locally-produced complementary foods for young children in six Sahelian countries (Burkina Faso Mali Mauritania Niger Senegal Chad) have also been analysed in collaboration with IRD. These analyses have been critical to strengthen the understanding of young children’s diets in the region, bridging a major evidence gap.
To learn more :
- United Nations Children's Fund and The Pennsylvania State University (2020). Regional Landscape Analysis of Trends and Factors of Young Children's Diet in UNICEF's West and Central Africa Region
- United Nations Children's Fund and the French National Institute for Sustainable Development. The locally produced complementary foods for young children: value-chain in six Sahelian countries
Families want to feed their children the nutritious food they need to grow and develop healthy – but they face immense challenges. The crisis of children’s diets is driven by multiple, interacting barriers that vary according to the contexts in which children and their families live, and exacerbated by a toxic combination of poverty, inequality, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lower income families struggle enormously to find and afford nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish, and meat -for their children. Climate change, poverty and conflict are also limiting the sustained supply and access to fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish, and meat, putting nutritious foods out of reach for those who need them most. Mothers continue to shoulder the responsibility to feed their children, but unequal unequitable division of household responsibilities and resources and paid work outside the home leave many women with insufficient time to feed their children well.
Regardless of a country’s income status, unhealthy processed foods and drinks are widely accessible and heavily marketed because legislation to prevent the inappropriate marketing of these foods is missing, inadequate or poorly implemented. Discussions with mothers found that one in three children between the ages of 6–23 months in Ghana and Nigeria consumed daily at least one unhealthy processed food or drink.
Just as the drivers of poor diets are multifaced, so are the solutions. To deliver nutritious, safe, and affordable diets to every child, governments, donors, civil society organizations, the private sector and development actors must work hand-in-hand to transform food, health, WASH and social protection systems. UNICEF West and Central Africa, in collaboration with regional partners, supports these efforts.
The Food Systems Summit on 23 September is an important opportunity to set the stage to strengthen food systems boldly and collectively to:
- Increase the availability and affordability of nutritious foods – including fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish meat and fortified foods – by incentivizing their production, distribution, and retailing.
- Develop and implement 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.
- Increase 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.
- Engage with the private sector in a renewed public-private partnership will be essential to make locally-produced fortified complementary foods available and affordable in the West and Central Africa region. This critical action may not only contribute to improving young children diets, but also serve as an innovative entry point for community-led integrated approaches, including nutrition-sensitive agricultural production, women empowerment and income generation activities as well as social protection services, with other nutrition-specific and sensitive nutrition interventions, hence shaping community-led and multisectoral systems for brighter futures.
FED TO FAIL REPORT
Poor-quality diets are one of the greatest obstacles to the survival, growth, development and learning of children today.
The stakes are highest in the first two years of life, when insufficient dietary intake of nutrients can irreversibly harm children’s rapidly growing bodies and brains, limiting their potential to grow, develop and learn in childhood and earn a decent income later in life. Meanwhile, foods high in sugar, fat or salt can set children on the path to unhealthy food consumption, overweight and diet-related diseases.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child states that governments have a legal obligation to protect and fulfil the right to food and nutrition for all children. Over the last two decades, the world has made significant progress in addressing malnutrition in children under 5, reducing the prevalence of child stunting by one third and the number of children with stunted growth by 55 million. This formidable achievement indicates that positive change for child nutrition is possible and is happening at scale in many countries and regions. Despite such progress, we have collectively failed to protect the right of all children to food and nutrition: an estimated 149.2 million children have stunted growth and 340 million children under 5 suffer from deficiencies in vitamins and other essential micronutrients.