Food and nutrition in times of COVID-19

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In the COVID-19 pandemic, it is incredible to note the efforts put in by one and all to meet the essential requirements. Food, a basic necessity, managed to create the maximum panic as the lockdown was announced. Individuals started rushing to grocery stores, super markets and other such places to indulge in panic buying which to some extent led to the shortage of commonly consumed food items. On the brighter side, this Novel Coronavirus Pandemic, also taught us how to survive with limited commodities or prepare a decent meal out of whatever we have got in our kitchens. It is also ironical how this Novel virus brought entire nation on the same scale, with the affluent class struggling to procure the exotic ingredients and the poor struggling to get one meal a day.

This pandemic has made a huge impact on food availability and accessibility. Both Central and State Governments have announced and implemented a number of measures such as direct cash transfers through existing government schemes; additional grain allotment to registered beneficiaries for next three months; advance pension payments (for three months) to elderly, widows and disabled people, among others, to ensure access to food. Further, the contributions made under Prime Minister Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES fund) have also started to reach the beneficiaries, beginning with those with zero balance in their accounts. With all this help pouring, still a significant proportion of citizens particularly those engaged in informal sector such as construction workers, food vendors, rickshaw pullers are facing the maximum hardships to access food. These workers often fall under the category of “Migrant Labourers” who are not formally registered to receive support through existing schemes and have to “make do” themselves.

While the voluntary organizations/individual volunteers or other support agencies are trying to reach out to such people with food and other essential commodities, but the quantity of food offered is sometimes not sufficient to sustain along with irregularity in distribution due to restricted movement, a rule which should be adhered, to prevent the spread of the infection. Further, in case of registered beneficiaries merely distributing the whole grains, specifically wheat, will be of little use since the local flour miller shops are not operating because of the lockdown. Similarly, the food demand comprises more than rice and wheat and include a variety of essential food products such as edible oil, vegetables etc. where markets need to deliver.

In addition to making food availability a challenge, this crisis might aggravate the malnutrition problem particularly undernutrition prevalent among vulnerable groups i.e. young children and women of reproductive age group. The Government of India is running one of the largest safety net scheme i.e. Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) to provide supplementary nutrition to this vulnerable group. Under this, Take Home Ration (THR) is provided to children between 6months to below 3 years and pregnant women and lactating mothers and Hot Cooked Meal (HCM) is given to the children between 3-6 years at AWCs.

The beneficiaries enrolled under ICDS scheme are entitled for these services. With the current lockdown and keeping the precautionary measure that needs to be adopted, the HCM component has been stalled for now. However front line workers are going an extra mile at this time of crisis to home deliver THR to the beneficiaries, in fact in Mulugu District, Telangana, they are delivering perishable yet nutritious food commodity like eggs to the lactating mothers. But this is half of the nutrition service that we provide to these beneficiaries in “normal” times and given to the restrictions, the delivery of service is erratic and observed in selected districts/states. Similarly, with closing of schools, the one meal that was provided to children studying in government and government aided schools under Mid-Day Meal (MDM) scheme is also hindered. Thus, this crisis has ended up depriving children of one meal that was provided through government support and increased the burden of one additional meal on their families who themselves are struggling to meet their food requirements.

As its rightly said “in the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity”. This is the time to start think of ways to develop our food system in a way that we do not create dependency on any schemes for a survival necessity like food and rather make each and every household self-sufficient to meet their own food and nutrition needs based on local availability. By doing this we will be able to contribute to the larger goal of ensuring Food and Nutrition security and accelerate our progress towards attainment of Sustainable Development Goals. A healthy food environment may be created by coordinating trade, food system and agricultural policies with the protection and promotion of public health; encouraging consumers’ demand for healthy foods and meals and promoting healthy nutrition across the life course.

When we talk about Food and Nutrition security, as a nation we have been able to become food secure with our surplus food production which is also allowing us to provide additional grains during this time of crisis but we are far away from becoming nutritionally secure. Our dietary intake in both Urban and Rural area is inadequate in terms of the recommended intake of food groups suggested by Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). In other words, our diets are not well-balanced. Further, in majority of safety net schemes the focus is mostly on providing cereal based diet or whole grains thus lacking in diet diversity with minimal use of food groups like millets, pulses, vegetable and dairy. This pandemic provides us with another opportunity to reflect on what are we actually feeding our citizens and why we always put emphasis on supplying wheat and rice to solve food and nutrition related problems. These grains might meet the calorie requirement but they are incapable to meet our nutritional requirements. Good nutrition is crucial for health, particularly in present times like these, when the immune system might need to fight back.

In the wake of the current and unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, World Health Organization (WHO) has recently emphasised the importance of appropriate diet and lifestyle measures including adequate nutrition to protect the immune system. A healthy immune system plays a vital role in defending our body against disease by fighting infection. Micronutrients, commonly known as vitamins and minerals though required in small quantities are essential for optimal health and well-being. Micronutrients, particularly vitamins A, C, D, E, B2 (riboflavin), B6 (pyridoxine), B12 (cobalamin) and B9 (folic acid) and minerals such as iron, selenium, zinc, magnesium and copper play an important role in ensuring the immune system can function properly. This of course is not a substitute for current public health advice on social distancing, mitigation and suppression of the epidemic through our individual and collective actions. We can ensure optimal intake of vitamins and minerals listed above through consumption of a well-balanced and diverse diet.

One can learn from Udhagamandalam (Ooty), Tamil Nadu where vegetable bags which are thoughtfully packed with greens and six to seven essential vegetables like carrots, potatoes, onions and tomatoes, which is estimated to last around 5 days for an average family of four is being sold at a fixed price at the doorstep of residents in containment zones. This is an initiative of the Horticulture Department and the Department of Agri-marketing under the leadership of District Collector. The vegetables are being procured from the farmers’ markets in the Nilgiris and these bags will also be taken to remote villages with little access to the major towns. If we analyse this bag from nutrition perspective, it is packed with essential vitamins and minerals.

Diet not only depends on an individual’s food choices, but also on the availability and affordability of healthy foods and sociocultural factors and promoting a healthy food environment requires involvement across multiple sectors and stakeholders, including government, the public and the private sector. Further, household dietary diversity improves when combined with directed nutrition action such as social behaviour change communication (SBCC). In the long run, the Government might focus on the creation of ecosystems so that self-sustaining nutrition centric micro-enterprises/startups can flourish. This may play an important role in a socially devolved system towards strengthening both food and nutrition security.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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