Comparing monthly food price records compiled by the Centre with the nutrition levels of children in undivided Andhra Pradesh, a study by Oxford University and Public Health Foundation of India has shown that rising inflation also causes a rise in child malnutrition levels.
The study published in the Journal of Nutrition is a collaboration between PHFI, Oxford, Stanford University and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Researchers observed progress in child nutrition in terms of wasting, which is one of the measures of malnutrition symptomatic of rapid loss of muscle and fat that happens during phases of acute malnutrition.
Between 2002 and 2006, the proportion of wasting in children in Andhra fell from 19% to 18%. This improvement reversed by 2009 when 28% of children were wasting — an increase of 10 percentage points compared to 2006. This was after high inflation in food prices, beginning in 2007 and continuing through 2009. The rise was observed only in children in low- and middle-income groups but not among high-income groups.
Child malnutrition remains one of India’s biggest problems. UNICEF claims an estimated one million children aged less than 5 die of causes that can be traced to malnutrition. One in approximately three Indian children suffers from malnutrition. The government is currently locked in a battle with UNICEF over the data of its Rapid Survey of Children that shows the then Narendra Modi-ruled Gujarat in poor light on measures like vaccination and malnutrition. A committee has now been formed to resolve the matter.
“Our statistical models suggest that rising food prices are associated with negative childhood nutrition across the entire population, but particularly among deprived groups, consistent with the theory that the latter groups have the smallest food reserves and therefore are less resilient to price variations. Rising food prices were associated with significant declines in the consumption of rice, a major source of caloric intake, and eggs and meat, which are important high-protein sources in Indian diets. In turn, these declines were associated with a greater risk of children’s wasting, a short-term respondent to prices, but not stunting, which is a long-term deprivation measure,” the authors write.
Researchers used survey data from a sample of 1,918 children from poor, middle-income, and wealthy households living in Andhra since 2002 for a longitudinal study of child poverty. They combined children’s weight and height measurements from the Young Lives data of Oxford with official government data on household-level expenditure and consumption patterns of food from the Indian National Sample Survey Office and the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau in order to calculate how much children ate across food categories.
They found that children’s food consumption dropped significantly between 2006 and 2009 as food prices increased. The paper suggests the differential changes in malnutrition among children from different income groups support the theory that poorer households have the smallest food reserves and are therefore hardest hit by rising food prices. The researchers examined interview data from each household on food expenditure based on 15-day periods in 2006 and 2009 across eight food categories (rice, wheat, legumes, meat, fish, eggs, milk, fruit and vegetables).
Dr Sukumar Vellakal of PHFI, who is one of the authors of the study said: “Our findings suggest that poorer households face the greatest risk of malnutrition, in spite of the Public Distribution System, which provides subsidised food to a large proportion of the population. Better targeting of food security policies may be necessary to meet the needs of India’s most vulnerable households. India’s remarkable economic growth in the last decade had not translated in to betterment of children nutrition status because of the rising food prices, we need specific policies help to ensure the affordability of food in the context of higher food prices for promoting children’s nutrition.”