Thu | Sep 21, 2017

Editorial: Undernourished kids a national imperative

Published:Friday | January 1, 2016 | 1:00 AM

No one can genuinely claim surprise at the manner in which a United Nations report on global undernourishment has been instantly turned into a political football between the opposition Jamaica Labour Party and the governing People's National Party.

Instead of carefully digesting the contents of the study, party functionaries have emitted vomitous rhetoric, ignorant of the grave state of nutrition and its economic antecedents.

Undernourishment, as defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), does not necessarily translate to mass emaciations; it means that people are not consuming the minimum dietary requirements over one year. Hunger is chronic undernourishment.

First, the good news: governments in Latin America and the Caribbean have shown increased commitment over the past two decades to tackling hunger by ramping up nutrition programmes in schools and communities. These welfare programmes have borne some success. Undernourishment, region wide, has fallen by 60 per cent from 14.7 per cent to 5.5 per cent.

But the trends of hunger in the wider Caribbean are cause for concern in the context of assessment with Latin America and the world. Hunger in the Caribbean, at 19.8 per cent, is three times worse than Central America and four times more severe than in South America. And though Jamaica has improved by 20 per cent its hunger rate since 1990-92, the current figure of 8.1 per cent signals a troubling reversal to appreciable declines in the first decade of the 21st century.

What has apparently escaped the bickering factions of Jamaica's political class is that undernourishment has two contrary paths - stunting, or underdevelopment; and obesity and overweight - in what the FAO calls "the double phenomenon of malnutrition". The rate of overweight among Latin American and Caribbean children under five years old, at 7.1 per cent, is above the global average.

What is more alarming is that overweight and obesity among Caribbean infants have surged more than 50 per cent between 1990 and 2015. Among Jamaican children under five years old, 4.8 per cent are stunted and 4.0 per cent are obese or overweight. These are among the lowest rates regionally.

Despite Jamaica's auspicious rating, undernourishment is a national crisis which exponentially grows more serious into adolescence and adulthood, with over 50 per cent of Jamaican women, in particular, being either obese or overweight.

While the Government has bolstered its School Feeding Programme, too many Jamaican children are too often either hungry or filling their stomachs with food that lacks nutrition. A few years ago, the late Roger Clarke, then the agriculture minister, had talked much about the inclusion of more fruits and vegetables in the dietary intake of students in public schools, but we are unaware that this initiative has taken a deep enough foothold in institutions to halt the stunting and fattening of a generation. His successor, Derrick Kellier, has been too silent on this score.

 

A MOUTHFUL

 

Mr Clarke had suggested that the familiar circumstance of fruits and vegetables rotting on Jamaican farms - whether because of inaccessibility to markets or seasonal gluts - be mollified by the incorporation of such food in the breakfasts and lunches of students. The potential value of this initiative is monumental and far-reaching, especially in the context of the FAO's extrapolation that 15 per cent of food in Latin America and the Caribbean is lost or wasted, which could feed 300 million people. That's a mouthful!

What can also be taken from the report - and which was widely anecdotally suspected - is that stunting and overweight are most severe in poor households; the poorer the family, the greater its vulnerability to malnourishment. This is because economically marginalised people are less likely to have healthy consumption patterns and are, generally, victims of a dietary subculture of cheap fried and fatty foods.

We are hopeful that the Government understands that with a new Budget three months away, it cannot undermine its subvention of the very poor, despite the taxing constraints of austerity, something we expect the International Monetary Fund to be mindful of.

This is why it is important to understand that realigning Jamaica's economy for growth is not merely a matter of dollars and cents, but a major investment in the quality of life. The prevalence of lifestyle diseases is also an economic and emotional burden we can ill afford to bear. More vigorous health promotion among the poor may just pay off.