MANILA, Philippines – Malnutrition among children below the age of five has changed very little over the past 10 years, making it unlikely for the country to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of eradicating poverty and extreme hunger by 2015.
“The reduction of child malnutrition has been alarmingly slow,” Carin van der Hor, Country Director of Plan International and Convenor Organization of the Koalisyon Para Alagaan at Isalba ang Nutrisyon (KAIN), said during the 2013 Hunger Summit organized by the National Nutritional Council (NNC) Wednesday.
Children below five years old who are underweight remain at 20 percent while children who are below the average height-to-age ratio remain at 30 percent, Hor said citing National Nutrition Surveys as of 2011.
Families who do not get the 100 percent dietary energy requirement even increased from 57 percent of the population in 2003 to 66.9 percent in 2008, the survey said.
MDG Goal 1, target 1C calls to “Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger,” particularly on the “prevalence of underweight children under five years of age.”
Hor said that “given this situation, it is unlikely that the Philippines will be able to meet the MDG of ending extreme hunger by 2015.”
The failure of children to get sufficient nutrition will have long-term effects on their life aside from the physical manifestations.
“We learned that eliminating undernutrition in young children has multiple benefits including increasing gross national product, improving school attainment by at least one year, increasing wages by five to fifty percent,” Hor said.
Improved children nutrition also “reduces poverty because well-nourished children are 33 percent more likely to escape poverty as adults and, empowering women since well-nourished girls are 10 percent more likely to run their own business when older,” she said.
Senator Grace Poe-Llamanzares, the keynote speaker of the summit, cited a study by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) that said approximately six million Filipino children are malnourished.
“Various studies all say that the effects of childhood malnutrition are irreversible and that children who grow up underweight and stunted are most likely to end up as adults with inferior intellectual and physical capabilities,” she said.
“Almost all experts agree that on a macroeconomic level, malnutrition has a negative impact on a country’s level of productivity and growth,” Poe said.
A bill that she has filed in the Senate aims to give “free nutritious meals” to public school students from kindergarten to grade six, five days a week, over a period of 120 days for five years.
Poe said that Senate bill 79, dubbed the “Sustansya sa Batang Pilipino Act of 2013,” will cost the government an estimated P10 billion but will be worth the improvement in nutrition of the children.
Bigger families hungrier
Emmanuel Esguerra, Deputy Director General of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), said that hunger and malnutrition hit women and children hardest.
He said that they found hunger to be more prevalent in households with four-five members. “Families with seven or more children have higher hunger incidence [and even] experience severe, chronic hunger,” Esguerra said.
Hunger causes higher infant mortality rate, poor health that affect children’s physical and mental development, he said. Children who have gone hungry were less likely to socialize and also achieve less in school.
“Hunger is a hindrance to economic growth [and] feeds the cycle of poverty,” Esguerra said.
He further pointed out that a single increase in food prices will increase the hunger incidence over a period of one year and three months, worsening the malnutrition situation.
Hor said that the effects of hunger and malnutrition do not end with a person or with children.
“From an economic point of view, productivity loss is a consequence of people that are less educated than they could be had they been properly nourished,” Hor said.
“If we are doing what we are doing right now, we are not likely to meet [the MDG],” she added. “It would be an embarrassment and an injustice … to the children of the Philippines.”