In Indonesia, almost one third of the children below 5 years are stunted, too short for their age and therefore at risk of not achieving their full physical and cognitive potential.
Other types of malnutrition are rapidly growing; overnutrition is on the rise with adults, but also children. Every fifth child between 5 and 12 years of age is overweight or obese; among adults this is the case for more than one third. Additionally, micronutrient deficiencies remain widespread; every second pregnant woman suffers from anemia.
All forms of malnutrition lead to a higher likelihood of developing non-communicable diseases later in life, such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, heart and kidney disease as well as cancer. These not only cause individual and family sufferings.
They also result in high costs to the health service system, the economy, and society as a whole. As we now know individuals with pre-existing conditions are also more likely to develop more severe symptoms if infected by COVID-19.
The average person in Indonesia – as in many other countries, irrespective of her or his socio-economic status is not eating a sufficiently diverse diet. Foods high in carbohydrates, sugar, salt and trans-fats dominate, and the consumption of processed food is increasing. 95 percent of the population older than 5 years does not consume sufficient amounts of fruits and vegetables, at the recommended frequency.
Preventing malnutrition is a complex endeavor. However, starting in childhood a shift towards a healthier lifestyle, based on a diverse diet consisting of sufficient fruits, vegetables, drinking water and non-sweetened beverages, balanced with regular physical exercise can make a significant difference.
In the long-term the entire food system from production to processing, to distribution and consumption needs to change to sustainably produce a diverse range of affordable foods for everyone, and gives farmers the means to earn their living, protects the environment and is adaptive to climate change.
The current COVID-19 crisis with its social distancing and lockdown requirements has caused many people to lose their jobs and has led to rising poverty. At the same time the government has significantly scaled up its social protection programs in terms of the number of people covered as well as the transfer amounts.
The new circumstances have also led many people to focus again on cooking at home instead of eating processed food outside. This offers an opportunity to seize the momentum for steering food consumption to more diversified healthy diets and building back better thus using the crisis also as an opportunity albeit under challenging circumstances.
Social media plays a critical role in reaching out to and educating netizens on the importance of healthy diets and improved nutrition. Especially in a situation of tightened incomes, ensuring people not only understand, but also change their practices is challenging.
Messages need to be compelling, and convincing to different target groups to prompt behavior change. For example, this is important for mothers and caregivers who prepare food and feed small children after six months of exclusive breastfeeding or for fathers, mothers and grandparents who cook for the entire family.
Older children can access health and nutrition information both at school and online following the national “my plate” message of eating as much vegetables and salad as eating rice, complemented by sources of protein and fruits. Adolescents can listen to behavioral change communication messages on healthy food consumption and life style (GERMAS) on their smartphones. And adults who receive social protection cash transfers under the Family Hope (PKH) and the SEMBAKO e-warong programs can participate in sessions providing messages on nutrition and diversified healthy diets.
Efforts to fortify staples such as oil and flour at minimal cost differences have already been implemented by the government. Currently the fortification of rice is being explored.
All of the above are the types of activities the United Nations World Food Program in Indonesia supports or is planning to support.
What will ultimately be needed is that all food system actors, from producers to processors, supply chain actors, retailers and consumers, focus on the production and consumption of foods that are part of diversified healthy diets. It is also necessary that the private sector, from smallholder farmers to those who are engaged in the production of processed food apply responsible ethical business standards and move to quality products and transparency through food labels, as well as voluntary reductions on the levels of salt, sugar and fat content put into ready-to-cook or eat food products.
The civil society, nonprofits and the media must do their part in raising the subject and creating momentum for social and individual responsibility to establish and maintain food systems which produce diverse, fresh, and affordable local food for consumers, reduce malnutrition and the risk of further rise in related non-communicable diseases.
The World Food Day 2020 provides an opportunity to reflect on how to move towards more diversified healthy diets. It definitely won’t be easy, and it won’t be fast either. But it is the right moment to pursue a new direction in production and consumption, to start building back better for a healthier future.
Country representative of the United Nations World Food Program in Indonesia
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.