We are currently focusing on COVID-19 and how to treat it, but the long-term effects of this pandemic will be felt by children far beyond their lifespan. Its negative impact on their education and health will continue for a very long time.
Understanding the effects of food insecurity on child development is critical. Food insecurity is defined as a household having limited or unpredictable access to nutritious and sufficient food. More than 368 million children who depend on school meals in 199 different countries are not receiving them because schools have closed all over the world.
Many of these children ate only the school meal. In low- and medium-income countries, school feeding programs are estimated to have provided a monthly transfer of 10% to poor households. This is lost now that the programs have been discontinued. Additionally, due to the likely loss of other income sources as a result of the pandemic and job losses, it is more difficult to meet the daily needs of children.
Even a short period of food insecurity over the long term can have serious effects on children.
In our recently published study, we used data collected for three years from preschool children in Ghana and their parents to examine how household food security was related to early childhood development outcomes. These included academic (maths and reading), social-emotional well-being, short-term memory, and self-regulation. Self-regulation is the degree to which a young child can act in a way that helps her achieve her goals. We were able to use longitudinal data in order to determine the relationship between food insecurity in early childhood and the outcomes of children in their first year of primary school.
Children’s development can be affected by food insecurity.
According to the food security status of households over three years, they were divided into three categories:
- Never food-insecure.
- Transitory food, in which the family experienced food insecurity for only one year.
- Persistent food, in which the family experienced food insecurity in both or all three years.
Children who lived in households where food security was ever a problem over three years performed worse on tests of literacy, numeracy, and short-term memory. We found that even temporary food insecurity – meaning the household was food insecure for only one-time point – was associated with lower scores in numeracy and short-term memory. This indicates that even a brief spell of food insecurity could have long-term consequences for children.
The effects of food insecurity may be long-lasting for children under the age of six.
Early childhood is the time when children lay the foundations for their future academic success, including their cognitive, social, and academic skills. For preschool-aged kids, food insecurity can have long-lasting effects on their development.
It is surprising that very few studies have addressed the issue of food insecurity in preschool. And none of them have, to our knowledge, considered it in developing countries, where food security is more prevalent than in high-income countries.
There are few reliable data on Sub-Saharan Africa, where food insecurity is the greatest. In this region, the number of children aged under five (29.4 million) and their proportion (44%) who do not meet important milestones in cognitive and psychosocial health is highest. Our results suggest food insecurity could be a major factor.
These findings emphasize the need for multi-sectoral strategies, including nutrition and social protection, to support early childhood development.
The findings show the importance of multi-sectoral strategies, including nutrition and social protection, to support child development. These findings add to the limited knowledge that exists on the long-term negative effects of food insecurity in childhood at home in India and Ethiopia.
Why is it important to have this evidence now?
The economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis on Ghanaian households and other countries will be severe. In developing countries, this will be particularly true for urban informal workers who have a day-to-day jobs and lose their only source of income when countries restrict movements and enforce lockdowns. Many children will be left hungry if schools are closed and school meals are stopped.
Insecurity about food during childhood can lead to low-quality diets and nutritionally impaired outcomes. Micronutrient deficiencies, which are a type of chronic malnutrition in early childhood, decrease cognitive abilities and mental health. Food-insecure caregivers may also experience higher levels of anxiety, as well as increased stress. They will have less time with their children to create the nurturing environment that is essential to early child development.
School meals can support the health and education of children, especially in times when there are crises.
Children who are food insecure may also show signs of anxiety, fatigue, and lethargy, which can affect their ability to interact with peers, parents, and teachers.
They are an important safety net for most vulnerable children. The impact of school meals on learning as well as nutrition is felt by the most vulnerable groups, such as girls or children living in poorer areas within a nation. School meals are shown to improve children’s educational and health outcomes, especially during emergencies.
What can you do?
Our study shows that even temporary periods of food insecurity have negative effects on child development. The challenges of COVID-19 are likely to continue for at least the next year, but the challenges associated with child food insecurity need not.
During a crisis, social protection programs like cash transfers or food transfers could be increased to provide more assistance to households who may have been affected by the pandemic. In Brazil, for example, some states have increased Bolsa Familia (the local cash transfer) with additional resources in order to compensate for school meals that were missed.
“Governments across the globe should act immediately to ensure the food security of families with children.”
In addition, schools could be used to distribute locally cooked food, like in Jamaica and certain states of India. This would support the employment of school cooks and caterers, as well as their food suppliers. Some countries have used a mix of approaches depending on the local context and needs. For example, Colombia allows municipalities to choose between food baskets, take-home meals, or food coupons to compensate for lost school lunches. Uruguay, meanwhile, has decided to either increase cash transfers to households who already receive them or to distribute food vouchers at schools.
Along with reducing the COVID-19 spread and looking for a vaccine, governments should take immediate action to ensure food security for households with children. If the pandemic is not stopped, it will have lasting effects on the health and development of children.