High food prices drive poor Zimbos to malnutrition

HARARE - A mother contemplates how she does her food shopping amid high costs in Zimbabwe.

Whatever is cheapest in the season, is what her children eat, substituting one thing for another, in much smaller portions than before.

“What I have at home is enough to give them a simple plate of sadza and beans, and it’s very little for each one,” the woman, Grace Sithole, told the Daily News referring to the traditional white corn cakes meal.

“And for me, I don’t care about going without eating. As a mother you’re always thinking about feeding your children,” says the 33-year-old single mother of two.

Owing to the soaring cost of food, many families are substituting usual foodstuffs for cheaper and more available alternatives, an inquiry by the Daily News backed by information availed by the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ), found.

As a survival strategy, many parents like Sithole have had to do away with some food stuffs to accommodate their lean pockets at the expense of their families’ daily nutritional requirements.

For instance, high protein foods like meat and chicken which as recent in 2016 were the fourth- and fifth-most purchased grocery products respectively, were overtaken in 2017 by vegetables and tubers as families struggled to cope with the rocketing prices of basic commodities.

As such, a casual walker in Harare’s vendor strewn roads would be forgiven to think that Zimbabweans have developed better eating habits judging by the influx of, for example tubers like madhumbe, sweet potatoes and other organic food varieties.

But the truth is that people now have to find alternatives to fill their stomachs without having to necessarily care about their nutritional values.

And like Sithole and her children, the survey found more Zimbabweans are skipping meals and the percentage of malnourished children is growing.

Although food varieties are in abundance in the retail outlets across the country, many have been priced away due to the price hikes recorded over the past year.

To make matters worse, Zimbabwe cannot pay to import goods because its government is desperately strapped for forex after years of mismanagement of funds, heavy spending, and lack of investment on across all sectors of the economy.

“Sometimes I get full, but sometimes not,” Sithole’s 11-year-old daughter, who has been diagnosed with moderate malnutrition, said.

“Rice with salad on a good day .... and in the morning we eat plain rice or home baked bread or even the previous night’s sadza. Meat is a reserve for supper when it is found. I haven’t eaten fish in a long while,” she said.

The effects of the price hikes appear to be taking a toll, too.

“I now cook a lot of beans as an alternative. We do not have any land here to grow our own vegetables and so many times, we do without them,” she said as she beckoned at the small yard at her one-room lodging in Harare’s Dzivaresekwa high density suburb.

Her family is being deprived of vitamins, a daily nutritional requirement whose biggest source is green vegetables.

Experts warn that the high cost of food may provide context, or at least a snapshot, of an obtaining nutritional crisis, which government has tried to curb by introducing the food bio-fortification programme which was vehemently resisted.

“Large, sudden and unexpected increases in food prices force people to adjust quickly. Consumer purchasing power goes down and households are pushed closer to or below poverty lines. This is especially true for urban families, rural households that are net consumers, and for households headed by women. What does this mean for nutrition?

“At household and individual level, it means that both dietary quality and total energy intake may be reduced, compromising child growth and cognitive development, increasing risk of micronutrient deficiencies for all family members, and increasing risk of infant and maternal mortality.

“It means that at national level, prevalence of stunting, underweight and other forms of malnutrition may increase, slowing human development and economic growth,” said Naomi Wekwete, a senior lecturer in the University of Zimbabwe’s Centre for Population Studies.

Experts also warned that the high costs of food was also taking a toll on the country’s health systems, especially given that Zimbabwe is grappling with a crisis of deadly Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs) which kill thousands of people every year, according to the 2015 Health Demographic Survey.

“Individual dietary choices are primarily influenced by such considerations as taste, cost, convenience and nutritional value of foods. In general, people may possess knowledge about healthful food choices, but when considered in tandem with the choice dimensions of price and taste, they may choose the tastier and cheaper, but less nutritious, food.

“An important question for public health promotion efforts in the area of healthful food choices is; can people be influenced to purchase and consume more healthful foods if the foods are increased in attractiveness through lowering prices,” said leading agricultural scientist Mandivamba Rukuni.

“If prices rise further and downgrading dietary quality is not enough, total caloric intake will be reduced. In addition to further increasing malnutrition, reducing total energy intake also increases risk of health shocks.

“This is because inadequate dietary intake weakens the immune system and increases susceptibility to disease. Infectious disease, in turn, increases nutrient requirements and weakens the immune system. This vicious circle can begin when dietary intake is inadequate in terms of quality but still acceptable in regards to total caloric intake. The situation worsens once energy requirements are no longer met,” said Harare-based nutritionist, Fadzai Pomerai.

The general consensus among experts that the current economic crisis and food price increase may have a widespread impact on the nutritional and health status of Zimbabwean citizens tend to dovetail with the recent studies and scientific observations that have been made in recent years.

For instance, the Zimbabwe Nutrition Association notes in its 2017 report that nutritional deficiency was the main cause of problems that were particularly affecting young children, which include increases in childhood wasting and stunting, intrauterine growth restriction, and micronutrient deficiencies such as that of vitamin A, iron, and zinc which children suffer from when faced with a food crisis and decreased food availability.

The report, titled Nutrition at a Glance noted that childhood anaemia alone is associated with a 2,5 drop in adult wages.

“The economic costs of under-nutrition include direct costs such as the increased burden on the health care system, and indirect costs of lost productivity. Annually, Zimbabwe loses nearly $24 million in Gross Domestic Product to vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

“Scaling up core micronutrient interventions would cost less than $8 million per year,” says the report.

In 2004, the Food and Nutrition Council (FNC) established a nutrition surveillance system to monitor the nutritional status of Zimbabwean children — the system was designed to include regular surveys.

But the only survey to have been held so far was the Zimbabwe National Nutrition Survey of 2010, which noted that children experienced stunted growth; wasting and underweight were highly prevalent in Zimbabwe due mainly to the high cost of food which was soaring beyond the affordability of many.

The survey, among other things, recommended the establishment of the Zimbabwe Food and Nutrition Security Policy, which was eventually actualised in 2013.

The policy hoped to provide a framework and coordinated multi-sectorial food security intervention strategy.

It would also help ensure food security to the nation at all times, especially for the vulnerable members among communities. Though food insecurity is a global threat, Africa carries the heaviest burden due to unpredictable climate and poverty.

Spiralling food prices and climatic changes were blamed for the food and nutrition insecurity faced by Zimbabwe.

Fao estimates that 890 million people worldwide are food insecure with one in every three children chronically malnourished.

The recent crisis in food prices, which has affected thousands of families throughout the developing world, has once again underscored the urgent need for governments to strengthen their safety net systems to ensure that the rise in the price of basic commodities does not trigger an increase in poverty rates.

According to the latest edition of the Food Price Watch, global food prices continued to increase between January and March 2018, a trend observed since the recent all-time peak in August 2012.

“Higher production, declining imports and lower demand generally pushed export prices down although international markets continue to be tight for maize,” the Food Price Watch noted.

According to the World Bank study High Food Prices: sub-Saharan Africa to the New Normal, the region is “in trouble from high prices and increase food production.”

This increase is here to stay, according to the study, which indicated that food prices have jumped by more than 43 percent since 2010, igniting concerns about a repeat of the 2008 food crisis.

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