Opinion: Early Childhood – Early Childhood Food Insecurity: A Future Harvested

Much has been discussed, both in the media and in academic circles, about the increase in hunger and food insecurity in Brazil. Data collected between 2017 and 2018 by the Family Budget Survey (POF), carried out by the IBGE, revealed that food insecurity in Brazil increased by 62.4% when compared to 2013 data. The same survey also revealed that 4.6 % of households in Brazil experience serious food insecurity, that is, hunger. This setback, reflecting the dismantling of public policies that promote Food and Nutritional Security, puts Brazil back on the Hunger Map.

The scenario became even more critical in 2020, due to the covid-19 pandemic, especially for children. The closing of schools with the not access the National School Feeding Program (PNAE), added to greater exposure to ultra-processed foods, were important points for this aggravation. A survey carried out by UNICEF revealed that of the families that earn up to the minimum wage, 42% lost access to school meals during the pandemic and 61% of the families with children and adolescents showed a reduction in income, which is more evident in the poorest families (69 %). There was a 54% increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods, such as soft drinks and foods prepared in fast food, during the pandemic in households with children and adolescents.

But what is Food and Nutrition Security?

Food and Nutritional Security (SAN) is defined as the “realization of the right of all to regular and permanent access to quality food, in sufficient quantity, without compromising access to other essential needs, based on health-promoting dietary practices, which respect cultural diversity and are socially, economically and environmentally sustainable”.

To guarantee this right, we must consider the dimensions of Food and Nutritional Security:

  • Availability: We have a sufficient production food for everyone?
  • Access: Everyone has the ability to get food in quantity and quality appropriate, respecting the culture and food history?
  • Biological use: the foods to which you have access cause illnesses, such as ultra-processed foods, which are rich in sugar, fat and salt or contaminated by pesticides, or favor the health (like organic fruits and vegetables)?
  • Stability and Environmental Sustainability: Availability and access are stable to over time? Does the production system favor food diversity? The system of production is sustainable in relation to the use of land and water?

Early Childhood: A Golden Window of Opportunity

A well-established fact, and with a lot of scientific evidence, is the importance of food and nutrition for pregnant women and children under 5 years of age. These early years of life, from the moment of conception to the end of infancy (5 years), are crucial for full physical, cognitive, and emotional growth and development. An inadequate diet, both quantitatively and qualitatively, with the scarcity or excess of macro or micronutrients, leads to a metabolic imbalance that the child carries into adulthood, with the presence of diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity and death Premature due to Chronic Noncommunicable Diseases in adulthood.

To make the best use of this window of opportunity, in the first 6 months of life, the only food that meets the baby’s nutritional, immunological, cognitive and emotional needs is breast milk. There is no substitute for that complete food. Breastfed children have a lower risk of infectious and allergic diseases, better growth and cognitive development, and a lower risk of obesity in childhood and adulthood.

From 6 months, the introduction of food should occur complementary, crucial moment, but also of great anguish for parents and family members. It is also during this period that the occurrence of nutritional deviations such as malnutrition, lack of micronutrients and excess weight set in, with the supply of inadequate food. The presence of a support network, such as health services, with systematic consultations and help from qualified professionals to monitor the baby’s growth and development, is an important strategy to ensure the child’s food and nutritional security.

What can we do?

Complex problems require systemic responses. This is the case with our food system. But however complex the problem, people can and should act as agents of change. In your roles as citizens, employers, parents and consumers, you can influence the social norms and institutional policies of workplaces, schools, food stores and communities.

Some questions that can raise demands and foster spaces for collective construction and social control are:

  • What does the manager do in favor of good nutrition and nutrition for children in his city?
  • How does your city, neighborhood and workplace support breastfeeding?
  • How is your child’s school feeding? Does the school purchase at least 30% of the products from family farming?
  • How does your city support family farming?
  • How is the access to food in nature and organic in your neighborhood?
  • How are your family’s food choices? And how are your cooking skills?

The Food Guide for the Brazilian Population, considered one of the best guides in the world, recommends that the basis of our diet be food in nature or minimally processed, such as fruits, vegetables, vegetables, grains, meat and eggs. Maintaining breastfeeding for two years or more, added to real food, free of pesticides and consumed in family meals, promotes the child’s full growth and development, breaks the cycle of poverty and creates a fairer society.

To rethink our food systems, more than ever, the maxim of “Think global and act local” applies.

Maria Paula de Albuquerque is a pediatric nutrologist, Ph.D. in sciences from UNIFESP, member of the Nutrition and Poverty Group of the Institute for Advanced Studies at USP. Member of the Regional Commission for Food and Nutritional Security and Sovereignty – Capital – CONSEA /SP. Clinical General Manager of CREN- Center for Recovery and Nutritional Education.

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