Sustainable Projects Can Be The Panacea To Challenge Of COVID-induced Nutrition Issues In Children From Resource-poor Background

The India Child Well-being Report 2020 released last November talks about the unsettling effects of the pandemic and how it has deepened the issue of malnutrition among children in the country.

In March last year, as the government announced a strict nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus, 14-year-old Mantasha Ansari’s (name changed) family struggled for survival. Mantasha’s father, an autorickshaw driver had met with an accident a little before the lockdown and was still recuperating. The sudden lockdown disproportionately hurt Mantasha’s four-member family with a loss of livelihood and lack of food even to meet their basic needs.  

Thirteen-year-old Prachi Bhosale (name changed) too faced a tragic life during the lockdown. Prachi’s father, a daily wage worker lost his income while her differently-abled mother needed support. The family of seven struggled for survival during the initial months of lockdown with almost no food at home. The challenge to procure food was even more significant because Prachi’s area was soon declared to be a containment zone.  

Mantasha and Prachi were just a few of the children whose lives and food patterns were severely disrupted following the lockdown. While the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns have been global and unprecedented human catastrophes, one of their biggest impact has been on nutrition among children – especially those from resource-poor backgrounds.  

The India Child Well-being Report 2020 released last November talks about the unsettling effects of the pandemic and how it has deepened the issue of malnutrition among children in the country. According to the report, COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown has put almost 115 million children at the risk of malnutrition.  

With thousands of households losing their incomes, essential health services disrupted and economic activity dwindling, the problem of food insecurity increased manifolds with children being affected the most. Since the lockdown led to the closure of schools, it also meant the discontinuation of the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) schemes – one of the largest supplementary nutrition programmes in the world for children from marginalised communities attending government schools. Several households did not receive their take-home ration (THR) under the public distribution scheme by the government.  

Sadly, as the pandemic rages in India, the cases of malnutrition, especially among children and adolescents from resource-poor backgrounds, are only likely to increase.  

But we have learnt from our experiences that when an issue like nutrition is multifaceted, it requires collective and collaborative action. 

The role of everyone including community-based organisations, social organisations, NGOs, parents, teachers and other members of the community becomes paramount. Moreover, when access to healthy and nutritious food becomes a serious concern, it is necessary to come up with innovative solutions.  

However, to address the issue of nutrition, it is not enough to rely on short term solutions that only offer food for a particular duration of time. There’s an ancient saying that goes ‘Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ This, perhaps, sums up the approach to finding sustainable solutions to the issue of nutrition, combating hunger and food security. 

The first lockdown was a learning experience which proved that community-based processes which are empowering and enable to mobilize populations are essential components of nutrition programmes. While we were instrumental in arranging food for our students and their families, we realised that the need was to address long-term food insecurity. Even before COVID, we were working on school-based Health and Nutrition programmes where children from municipal schools are appointed as what we call ‘Health Monitors’. The aim is to encourage them to become ambassadors of healthy practices within their community and promote the importance of proper nutrition among their peers. Now, during the pandemic, these ‘Health Monitors’ are being trained in various life skills and have been responsible for disseminating knowledge about balanced meals and nutrition among their own families and communities. 

All these aspects also gave birth to the idea of creating small school kitchen gardens with locally available, supplemental and nutritious plants and vegetables. Under expert guidance, our children who are students of government schools, and their teachers began working on the school garden project once the lockdown eased a little. The gardens have helped a great deal in helping them know about fruits, vegetables, microgreens etc and supporting them to become more familiar with the world of fresh produce. The overall focus has been to boost the chances that the children and their families will choose to incorporate healthful fruits and vegetables into their diets. Besides, we have realised that tending a garden has helped to teach the children lessons about teamwork, responsibility and perseverance while benefitting the community as a whole too. 

While the government is playing its part by launching the Mission Poshan 2.0 this year with the aim of developing practices that will accelerate health and wellness among children, there is still need for more cognizance to ensure that interventions reach the right beneficiaries. For this, NGOs and Community Based Organisations can help plug the gaps in health and nutrition programming by working in tandem with local governments. Their role is seminal as they can integrate evidence-based nutrition interventions into their work which could directly add to the collective capacity to eschew malnutrition. 

In general, it has to be a joint effort. More awareness about elements like low-cost, nutritious ready-to-eat snacks and knowledge about nutrient-dense local food can help families who are constrained for resources. It is now time to join hands and take comprehensive efforts to create robust messaging around the importance of nutritional outcomes, and try to save our children from falling further into the abyss of malnutrition.  


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