Maverick Citizen


Teach them while young: A healthy diet yields an extended life expectancy

The Constitution says every child has a right to sufficient nutrition. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

According to our Constitution, every child has a right to sufficient nutrition. That is because sufficient nutrition is imperative for optimal health, growth and development, especially for children. This can be achieved by good eating habits informed by food-related knowledge and skills to ensure healthy diets. Are we doing enough?

For poor families, access to nutrition in South Africa is a triple-edged sword: child stunting and malnutrition are staying stubbornly high, while obesity is rapidly rising to ever greater heights. This has been confirmed in the 2020 Global Nutrition Report “the world’s leading independent assessment of the state of global nutrition.

According to the report, South Africa has made no progress towards achieving its target to reduce stunting, with 27.4% of children under five affected. This means that these children are unlikely to reach their full growth and developmental potential because of the irreparable physical and cognitive damage caused by a lasting nutritional impoverishment.

Activists believe the Department of Health has an obligation to the public to ensure there is adequate information circulating on nutrition in infancy as well as on complementary feeding. However, they add that parents, caregivers and the community also have a role to play in ensuring that children’s rights to sufficient nutrition are fulfilled. 

Studies have shown that investing in nutrition literacy that aims to educate young children establishes lifelong patterns that help avoid micronutrient deficiencies and chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs). 

The African Children’s Feeding Scheme (ACFS), a non-profit organisation in Johannesburg, believes that “saving children from a long disadvantage of poor nutrition and health is a calling”. In addition to feeding marginalised children, it also provides multi-needs interventions in nutrition and health assessments and literacy.

Bertha Magoge, director of the ACFS, said the scheme hosts health workshops in its 13 centres across Johannesburg in partnership with local clinics to promote primary prevention of all childhood illnesses, and some common ailments that affect adults such as blood pressure, diabetes and stress. 

“We believe that in order to give children a chance in life it is imperative that we look at the primary needs of children in order to thrive and thus good nutrition and a clear health check. Hosting health club days as well as skills club days is a strategy we have come up with to equip parents with necessary skills and knowledge on nutrition, food production, preservation and cooking,’’ said Magoge. 

The best start in life is one that ensures that children are given good health, proper nutrition and early learning.

When asked for an opinion by Maverick Citizen on the importance of early-childhood nutrition literacy, nutrition specialist at UNICEF South Africa Gilbert Tshitaudzi said levels of “nutrition literacy” can be a determinant of the health of a population. 

Without nutrition literacy, households, especially those in poor and rural areas, would find it difficult to understand the nutrition problems that children are faced with,’’ said Tshitaudzi. 

However, Josephine Mtambo, a resident of Spruitview, Ekurhuleni, and mother to five-year-old S’phokuhle said understanding nutrition is not necessarily the biggest problem; the affordability of healthy food and the hype around unhealthy foods is.

“Imagine something as simple as an apple costs R3 and rising while a packet of NikNaks chips is at a constant R1. Obviously, I will go with the NikNaks as I can afford to buy one packet for my child for the next three days rather than spending that whole R3 at once. And besides, chips are popular in crèches more than anything so I wouldn’t like for my child to feel otherwise while other children enjoy their food,’’ said Mtambo.

While a child’s right to “basic nutrition” is enshrined in the Constitution, the realities of poverty and inequality mean that millions of children are denied this right. This results in the complex double burden of affordability and accessibility of foods and food knowledge. This in turn contributes to consumer behaviour with a preference for foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar as they come at a cheaper price.

To answer the question on affordability and making healthy choices, Maria van der Merwe, an independent public health and nutrition consultant and spokesperson for the Nutrition Society of South Africa, said that it is important to equip children with nutrition literacy that takes account of their means so that they can actually apply their food and nutrition knowledge when making food choices.

Given that millions of children’s lives and futures depend on access to food and food choices, the question of nutrition literacy in children and adults is becoming ever more important. But the health sector can only do so much – it’s time for communities, schools and food retailers to step up and make nutrition literacy a prosocial and insistent norm. DM/MC


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