Maternal and Child Health

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Food For Health

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Times of India
01 February 2011

Prioritise child nutrition to secure developmental goals
Food For Health
With food inflation going through the roof in recent weeks, government food schemes for children have taken a significant hit. States such as Assam, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur and Bihar have either not been able to provide supplementary nutrition under the Integrated Child Development scheme or have downgraded to dry rations instead of cooked meals.

Midday meal providers in primary schools too are being forced to compromise on their menu. The net result is a considerable reduction in the nutritive value of the food schemes, which could severely hamper child development.

This goes against the letter and spirit of the Supreme Court direction in 2001 that had directed the government to ensure the supply of nutritious cooked meals to all children in primary schools. The multiple benefits of the programme, which include eradication of child hunger, keeping children in schools and bridging caste disparities through communal dining, have long been recognised. Yet the implementation of the food schemes has been lacklustre.

India has an estimated 40% of the world’s severely malnourished children under five years of age. Around half of reported infant deaths are related to malnutrition. Securing the future growth and development of the country demands that our children have access to proper nutrition. It is imperative that the government assigns top priority to the issue and insulates child food schemes from budgetary cuts. Linking the cost of supplementary nutrition programmes to the consumer price index is a good idea.

On the other end of the scale, the issue of unhealthy dietary habits among schoolchildren deserves greater attention. Surveys conducted in Delhi–NCR indicate that around 75% of schoolchildren regularly snack on junk food high on trans–fats and empty calories. As a consequence of this trend, 16% of children across the country are overweight, putting them at risk of a plethora of lifestyle diseases.

There is a strong case for cracking the whip on school canteens that sell junk food such as colas and deep–fried chips and replacing them with healthier options. Besides, much of what a child eats determines his development graph in school.

Independent studies in the UK have shown that healthier menus in school cafeterias have led to improved student performance in subjects such as science and English. They also cut down student absenteeism due to illness by 15%. Taken together, there is a pressing need to address child nutrition not only in terms of delivery but also in terms of quality. The solution lies in creating greater awareness among children and parents, as well as robust government–private partnership in mitigating child hunger and promoting healthy dietary standards.

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