Since the pandemic started, prices of food have consistently risen due to disruptions in the food supply chain, transportation costs, and, occasionally, due to extreme weather disturbances that affect crop harvests and delivery. This is further aggravated recently by the increases in fuel and conflict between Russia and Ukraine, both of which are major grain exporters. Thus, it is no wonder that the most urgent issue that Filipinos want the new administration to address—at least according to the recent Pulse Asia Survey—is inflation.
Families in developing countries spend up to half of their budgets on food, so food price increases have wide negative impact. This is true even before the pandemic: In 2018, the average Filipino household spent about 42.6 percent of its income on food alone. The Philippine Statistics Authority data shows, moreover, that poor households spend about 58 percent of their income on food—making it unsurprising that many Filipinos are looking forward to President Marcos Jr. fulfilling his campaign promise of making the price of rice at P20 per kilo (the practicality of which is a topic for another column).
If securing food is challenging in itself, securing healthy and nutritious foods is even more so. According to the World Bank, nutritious food prices increase faster than other consumer prices. This explains why food-insecure households turn to energy-dense, mostly carbohydrate-rich foods that make them feel fuller to “prevent hunger” (pantawid gutom). Alas, the trend in the per capita consumption of fruits has been a steady decline since 1978 at 104 grams to only 34 grams in 2018-2019 based on the Food Consumption Survey of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST)-Food and Nutrition Research Institute. In addition, even the price of cheaper sources of protein such as eggs and fish has been steadily increasing recently, thus making the Sustainable Development Goal of eradicating hunger—and malnutrition—even more difficult.
There is widespread acknowledgment that multisectoral approaches are needed to address the consumer side—which includes nutrition education, skills, and access—and the supply side of providing healthy foods. As the nutrition month theme for this year, “New Normal na Nutrisyon, Sama-samang Gawan ng Solusyon!” aptly calls for strengthened nutrition interventions and solidarity toward nutrition improvement as the country shifts toward living with the COVID-19 virus. It builds on the fact that good nutrition is key to building immunity and supporting recovery.
On the consumer side, there is a need to promote low-cost nutritious foods and recipes, as well as promote foods that are locally available and underutilized, such as root crops, green leafy vegetables, seaweeds, and other edible wild foods. In our own research conducted in Siargao Island during the pandemic and published in Acta Medica Philippina (Lasco, et al., 2022), we found that there is extensive indigenous knowledge on duma (i.e., root crops), but they are vanishing in the face of overdependence on rice—for which they would even sell their duma. More anthropological and sociological studies on food preferences are required if we are to address the nutrition crisis.
The pandemic has also shown the importance of having home and community gardens that are immediate sources of nutritious foods, thus, this should be maintained and further encouraged. There is also a need to learn ways to do food preservation at the household level, so that when there are food items that are in season, these can be bought in bulk and prolong their availability.
On the supply side, the issue of controlling food prices in the context of nutrition, the goal should be to make dietary diversity more affordable for all. This should not only be to lower the price of rice alone, but to make nutrient-rich foods more affordable alongside considering the state of our local farmers and fisherfolk as they are also among the most food insecure sector. There is also a need to support food innovations that will help in value adding of food and other agricultural products for local, and maybe even export, market.
The double and triple burden of malnutrition is looming as food and nutrient adequacy is becoming more difficult to achieve. We need to work double or triple time if we are to avert more stunted children and other long-lasting consequences of our worsening nutrition crisis.
Charina Javier is a nutritionist and science research specialist at the DOST-Food and Nutrition Research Institute. Gideon Lasco is a physician, medical anthropologist, and Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist.
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