India’s private sector can help address nutritional gaps during Covid and beyond

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The Global Hunger Index 2020, which measures hunger looking at the levels of undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting and child mortality, ranked India at 94 among 107 countries. Also, according to the first-phase data of National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), India continues to exhibit a high prevalence of malnutrition among children below five.

The aforementioned data highlights the severity of the issue of malnutrition, undernutrition and anaemia in India. Malnutrition can lead to multiple adverse outcomes having wide-ranging impact. It negatively affects not only people’s physical growth, cognitive development and overall capacity, but has also has been identified as one of the principal limitations inhibiting India’s global economic potential.

Role of PPPs to end hunger

The scale of malnutrition in India undermines significant advances made in economic, social, and cultural indicators. It constitutes a serious public health problem. The Covid pandemic significantly hampered the availability of nutritious food in large parts of the country due to disruptions in food systems and supply chains.

This has brought to light the important role that the Take-Home Rations (THR) programme can play in achieving nutrition targets. Take-Home Rations is part of the Supplementary Nutrition Programme that provides monthly fortified rations to children under three years of age as well as pregnant women and lactating mothers.

While disruptions in supply chains arising from the ongoing pandemic threaten India’s food security and programmes targeting malnutrition — social safety nets such as the THR programme can ensure delivery of fortified food to the last mile in the country. There is also a greater need for (PPPs) to mitigate market disruptions.

In emerging nations like India, malnutrition and hidden hunger is too multidimensional and vast for the government or the private sector alone to address by themselves. While private entities in the food sector could produce products addressing malnutrition, these can be distributed more efficiently via the PPP model.

The private sector has the technical knowhow to leverage economies of scale thereby making programmes like THR extremely affordable and accessible. Such PPPs should make nutrition aspirational, affordable and ensure quality.

Why collaborations count

Another benefit of collaborations is that these can address trust deficits regarding private companies. Therefore partnerships with various government bodies, both nationally, state and globally-entrusted entities such as the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) and UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) can facilitate faster acceptance of food fortification and allied schemes for addressing malnutrition and promoting food security.

Moreover, private companies could act as responsible employers by catering to the nutritional needs of their employees. This could be done by providing nutritious meals in the office, which may be ensured by on-boarding nutritionists. The latter could ascertain that employees working remotely or from home are also aware of the importance of consuming balanced meals daily, safeguarding both physical and mental well-being.

In the National Nutrition Mission (NMM) (also known as “POSHAN Abhiyaan”) guidelines, Government of India has recognised the private sector as a major driver and enabler for impactful change within its ecosystem.

During the Covid-induced lockdown, when food chain supplies were disrupted, Impact4Nutrition’s pledged partners worked on the ground, providing sanitation and safety kits as well as dry ration kits and hot cooked meals to the most vulnerable. This initiative helped over 10 million citizens (as of July 2020) during the months of complete lockdown.

Although Covid-19 headlines are revolving around vaccines, the criticality of a healthy diet in boosting immunity cannot be overlooked. Undoubtedly, the best way to build immunity is via healthy foods as well as supplements and food fortification to overcome dietary shortfalls. The strategy to meet the malnutrition challenge calls for stakeholder engagement so that we are able to make the Zero Hunger Vision a reality.

The writer is Vice President – Global Malnutrition Partnerships & Programs, DSM

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