Why Tackling India’s Malnutrition Problem Needs Us to Look Beyond Just Donating Leftover Food

Let’s become partners in India’s goal to achieve #ZeroHunger

Annabelle D’Costa

For several centuries, the Musaharas or rat eaters of Bihar—one of India's most marginalised communities of India—have subsisted on rat stew. The story of the 2.5 million strong community, is just one example of the stark problem of hunger in India. Across the world, 821 million people go to bed on a hungry stomach.

Is there anything that attacks the rights of a person in a more vicious and cruel way than hunger. 

Also read: 7 food facts about World Food Day 

Ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition by 2030 have been adopted as the second Sustainable Development Goal by the United Nations. The government of India has set itself a goal to achieve a “malnutrition-free India” by the year 2022. This message was also the key driver for the Poshan Maah (nutrition month) launched in September 2018, and since celebrated in the annually in the same month.

For India, the burden of malnutrition is huge. The Global Hunger Index 2019 has placed India at the 102nd position, out of 117 countries, in terms of food insecurity. Only 9.6 per cent of our children between the ages of 6–23 months get the minimum requirement of food. That means an entire generation growing up malnourished and underdeveloped. The Child Well-Being Index report released on August 27, 2019, too has a dismal story to tell—we have the highest number of stunted children in the world. The Global Nutrition Report, 2018 estimates a total of 46.6 million stunted children in India alone. In a nutshell, we are worse off than Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and even Nigeria when it comes to child malnourishment!

India's Hidden Hunger

While hunger demands food, malnourishment is a more complex issue. In India, we face the problem of hidden hunger—lack of sufficient protein and essential micro-nutrients in the food consumed by a large section of the population. This leads to growth retardation and nutrient deficiency diseases. 

India was one of the first nations to introduce national nutrition policies and schemes such as the Mid-Day Meal scheme (1995), and the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) in 1975. Since 2001, more than 110 million children from 1.2 million schools across the country are being provided hot and fresh meals every day. 

Why we need food fortification programmes 

Vitamins and minerals are important to human development, disease prevention and well-being. One of the most important micronutrients is iron, and its deficiency, which is called anaemia, can affect everything from your brain function to your immune system.   

India has a heavy burden of anaemia. The Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS) 2016-18, the largest micronutrient survey in the world, throws light on the issue.

  • 41 per cent preschoolers, 24 per cent school-age children and 28 per cent adolescents are anaemic, with greater prevalence among children below age two.
  • 40 per cent of girls are anaemic, compared to 18 per cent boys
  • 1 in 3, or 447 million, are anaemic

Is malnutrition a gendered issue? 

Yes, women bear a larger share of the malnourishment burden in India and suffer from chronic undernutrition. The CNNS survey was able to highlight the fact that every second woman in India is anaemic and that every third woman has a low body mass index (BMI).

We don’t really need studies to conclude that healthier women are the backbone of a healthy family. However, women and girls continue to receive poor nutrition in the same household. Women traditionally eat after the men and children and are served the leftovers. The problem of chronic undernutrition is reason enough for us to shift our focus on women’s food habits and put an end to this vicious cycle of malnutrition.

Can we blame climate change?


A 2019 report released by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) found a 45 per cent increase in the number of malnourished people in drought-sensitive countries, India being one of them. Several states, especially Jharkhand, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, are victims of scanty monsoon rainfall and dry weather, all of which affect agricultural produce, pushing more families into poverty. Besides, recurring climate shocks such as drought, delayed monsoons, tropical floods and insufficient recovery time between disasters undermine the food security of a nation and weaken the nutrition levels of people. 

What role does poor sanitation play?

Lack of nourishing food alone doesn’t lead to child malnutrition. The fallout of poor sanitation and hygiene is repeated infections which can compromise immunity among young children. Poor hygiene can also cause life-threatening diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera and typhoid. Children below two years of age are most susceptible to such infections as their bodies divert nutrients to infection-fighting and survival, not to growth. This aggravates the classic symptoms of malnutrition—stunting, wasting and underweight. Worse, these have irreversible effects no matter how much food they eat.

What can you do as a woke citizen?

The World Food Programme (WFP) has identified five steps and measures to help us achieve #ZeroHunger. While the government policies and programmes for the baseline, here's how you can fight the problem as an aware and involved citizen.  

Do your bit for the community around you

Poverty alone does not lead to malnutrition, but it does act as a roadblock in getting adequate nutrition for the most vulnerable populations. While government schemes supplement daily diets for those availing the scheme, these are clearly not enough.

What you can do: On an individual level, we can take time out to educate the community, especially the women who lacked opportunities for education, of schemes such as the Mid-Day Meal that provide freshly cooked food to school children (class 1 to 5), and PM Jan Dhan Yojana and the Rajiv Gandhi National Crèche Scheme for Children of Working Mothers, which cover pregnant and lactating mothers.    

Also read: Find out how Robin Hood Army is doing its bit to solve the problem of hunger, one meal at a time 

Farm to fam

While dining out in recent years may have increased, at heart we are a nation that loves fresh home-cooked meals. Most of our produce is grown by small farmers. The WFP recommends innovating and investing in making our supply chains efficient by developing sustainable durable markets. The government needs to step in and ensure that farmers, food retailers, convenience stores and local kiranas are easily accessible to everyone.

What you can do: Adopt a farmer. Small farmers who grow fresh vegetables are often at the mercy of middlemen. Build a community of people around you who want to buy directly from farmers—this ensures that the farmer has a steady market that she can grow for. The close link ensures the exchange of knowledge—about the food you eat and adopting sustainable organic farming techniques.

Say no to food wastage

Consider this: One-third of the food produced for consumption is wasted. According to a report in The Times of India, wedding food worth Rs 339 crore gets wasted annually in the city of Bengaluru alone. Next in line are the F&B companies who are top contributors to food wastage. This is where organisations like Feeding India and Robin Hood Army step in with food waste management services.  

What you can do: Food in the bin is money in the bin. So don't waste, take, cook or serve only as much as you need. If you're hosting events, tie up with an organisation that makes use of leftover food, and volunteer with these organisations.  

Also read: How to take care of the community with food 

Sustainable is the way

The WFP recommends helping farmers explore and identify a more diverse range of crops other than the usual wheat, rice, soy and corn. Researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment have concluded that if we stop feeding nutritious grains to farmed animals meant for consumption, and instead to humans, we would be able to feed an additional 4 billion people.

What you can do: Eat diverse ingredients. Buy local, fresh and seasonal produce. Avoid buying from supermarkets and don't accumulate food miles. 

 Put nutrition first 

The latest Global Burden of Disease study found that the world on average ate only 12 per cent of the recommended amount of nuts and seeds, but instead drank 10 times more sugary drinks and consumed nearly twice as much processed meats. The same study also found that unhealthy eating kills about 11 million people a year, while smoking, on the other hand, kills about 8 million. 

What you can do: This double burden of malnutrition–undernutrition and overweight or obesity, can be tackled with education and awareness. Be wary of cheap and affordable packaged foods that are calorie-dense, and low on nutrition. Impart nutrition education to children and adolescents, so they can make healthy choices. 

Lead image: Priyamvada Kowshik
Inside images: Shutterstock


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