(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Food crisis threatening nutrition of young children

A young boy eats in a native plate of locally grown rice in Banaue in Ifugao Province north of the Philippines May 2008. The recent culmination of the Imbayah rice festival heralds the bountiful harvest in what is considered the 8th wonder of the world. B
VJ Villafranca/IRIN

Rising prices of basic food commodities have forced the Philippine government to scale down efforts to address malnutrition among children, putting the under sixes at nutritional risk.

The government has already opted to limit the coverage of its Food for School Programme from the top 40 food-poorest provinces to the top 20. President Arroyo, during a National Anti-Poverty Commission in March 2008, issued this directive as the country grappled with the tightening rice supply.

The Food for School programmes have also been scaled down and no longer cover all children in grades one to six, but only the first three levels. The programme involves the distribution of one kilogram per day of iron-fortified rice in public schools for four months that children and their families can consume; it leads to improved school attendance.

In a paper presented at a policy workshop to address hunger mitigation in June 2008, Maria Bernadita-Flores, executive director of the National Nutrition Council, acknowledged: “The rice price and supply crisis, coupled with the run-away prices of fuel in both global and local markets, present a clear and present danger of more Filipinos being hungry and in the long run, more undernourished.”

She stressed the immediate need to implement intervention programmes “to mitigate this danger”.

At high risk of under-nutrition are children under six, and the food insecurity caused by rising rice prices has magnified this concern, according to health authorities.

“Children five-years and below are most vulnerable to malnutrition,” Cora Cerdena, supervising senior specialist at the Nutrition Centre of the Philippines, told IRIN. “That is why it is important to implement the programmes geared towards this age-group.”

Prior to the food crisis, data showed the government was making headway in reducing malnutrition among infants and children up to five years old, as well as those aged 6-10.

''The rice price and supply crisis, coupled with the run-away prices of fuel in both global and local markets, present a clear and present danger of more Filipinos being hungry and in the long run, more undernourished.''

Underweight, under-height

In 2001, based on a National Nutrition Survey, 30 percent of the under sixes were underweight, and 31.4 percent were under-height. In 2003, the figure went down to 27 percent underweight and 30 percent under-height.

In 2005, the prevalence of underweight children further decreased to 25 percent, while under-height children declined to 26 percent. (Figures for 2007 are not yet for official release.) The Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target is to reduce malnutrition to 17 percent by 2015. Experts are now concerned that any improvements are now being undermined by the current food crisis.

To achieve this MDG target, the government launched the Accelerated Hunger-Mitigation Programme (AHMP) which seeks to address both the supply and demand side by increasing food production and food delivery while at the same time putting more money in people’s pockets. The programme is being implemented in at least 40 of the poorest provinces.

Part of the programme is the promotion of good nutrition, which targets children.


Photo: Jose Enrique Soriano/WFP Philippines
WFP rice distribution in the Food for Training Programme in the Philippines targeting poor provinces

Nutrition programme under threat

Two major components under the Philippine Plan of Action for Nutrition are rice distribution among schoolchildren and food fortification. But the tight supply of rice threatens to undermine nutrition efforts.

The cutback on rice distribution among schoolchildren has a direct effect on the campaign to reduce malnutrition among children under six, Nutrition Centre of the Philippines Information and Education Division Director Nerissa Babaran told IRIN

“The schoolchildren are the entry points for the distribution of the rice. If you cut back the coverage, you also in effect cut back supply for the other members of the family.”

Promoting breastfeeding

To supplement efforts at better nutrition, Babaran said the campaign to promote breastfeeding has moved into high gear. “We want to bring back the culture of the 1970s and 80s where there was high incidence of breastfeeding among mothers,” she said.


Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
Officials want to bring back the culture of the 1970s and 80s where there was high incidence of breastfeeding among mothers

Breastfeeding training and promotion is now under way in Priority One provinces, identified as the 20 poorest. These provinces include Mountain Province in Luzon; Masbate, Camarines Norte in the Visayas region; Zamboanga Sibugay, Surigao, Maguindanao, Agusan del Sur and Sarangani in Mindanao. Village health workers, midwives and hospital interns are being taught the benefits of breastfeeding, under the Training of Trainers on Infant and Young Child Feeding. The goal is that they will encourage mothers to breastfeed their children.

In her report on the progress of the AHMP, Flores said the campaign has reached 83 percent of targeted municipalities and `barangays’ (villages) with more than 9,000 implementers trained. The target is to reach 203 municipalities and 2,774 villages. “Those trained are expected to follow-up with pregnant and lactating women and assist them in making informed and desirable decisions related to breastfeeding and complementary feeding,” the National Nutrition Council’s Flores said.

In the face of growing food insecurity in the Philippines, Flores said the advocacy for breastfeeding as an anti-poverty measure “should be strengthened and sustained”.

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