Hunger: Not just a food sufficiency problem

Column-Sen Edgardo Angara photoFormer Sen. Edgardo J. Angara

Acording to the latest Social Weather Station survey, 4.8 million families were hungry or unable to acquire enough food to meet their nutritional requirements. A 2014 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) study said that 11.3 million Filipinos were hungry.

The statistics of hunger and undernourishment are alarming, but we cannot ignore another equally important phenomenon—hidden hunger.

This form of hunger is caused primarily by poor diet, disease, impaired absorption, and increased vitamin and mineral needs during pregnancy, lactation, and infancy. It results in weaker immune systems, physical stunting, mental impairment, low productivity, and even death.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)’s Global Hunger Index (GHI) recently reported that more than 2 billion people worldwide are malnourished—not because they are “food poor”, but because intake or absorption of vitamins and minerals is too low to sustain good health and development.

In 2005, Philippines’ GHI was 14.7. Nine years later, it went down to 13.1

The 8th National Nutrition Survey revealed that because of undernutrition, 7.93 percent of Filipino children are wasted or “too thin for their height” and 30.3 percent are stunted or too short for their age.

Meanwhile, the most recent Global School-based Health Survey by the World Health Organization (WHO) from 2011 reported that 11.8 percent of surveyed Filipino students aged 13-15 years old were underweight while 10.2 percent are overweight.

During my stint as senator, I initiated the first nutrition-based school program for grades 1 to 3. It was followed by the “Oh My Gulay! (OMG!)” campaign, which establishes vegetable gardens in public schools and teaches schoolchildren the importance of proper nutrition.

This 16th Congress, Senator Sonny Angara filed the Child Nutrition Act (SBN 202). It is aimed at institutionalizing the School Feeding Program of all Grade 1 students for 120 days. The bill also awards incentives to private companies that will donate food, milk, juices, vitamin supplements, or other similar products.

But solving hidden hunger is not as simple as buying food and giving it to the poor for free. The FAO suggests that governments must also create an environment that values good nutrition. This may take the form of taxing foods high in salts or sugar to reduce consumption of unhealthy foods and incentivizing healthy foods like fruits and vegetables.

Envisioned by the Department of Health (DOH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), mandatory labeling on food products (even in restaurants and fast food chains) can also be another government intervention. The label should include standard serving measurement, calorie content, and a detailed breakdown of the constituent elements.

The WHO provides a different approach—food fortification. This is defined as the practice of deliberately increasing the content of essential micronutrients in food to improve their nutritional quality and give public health benefit with minimal risk.

RA 8172 or the Act Promoting Salt Iodization Nationwide (ASIN Law) is one example of a food fortification effort in the country. Passed in 1995, the law mandates that iodized salt from producers in the country should conform to the standards set by the Bureau of Food and Drugs (BFAD). This law was created in the 90s to help eliminate micronutrient malnutrition in the country.

Because of the ASIN law, four in every five households in the Philippines now have access to iodized salt. The World Bank reported that as of 2008, the consumption of iodized salt among households in the Philippines was at 81 percent—a big leap from the 56.4 percent in 2002.

Another successful government effort was the passage of the Philippine Food Fortification Act of 2000 which instructed food manufacturers to fortify processed goods with essential nutrients approved by the Department of Health (DOH).

Whatever form or shape of intervention, the State should be able to address the nutritional gaps in all stages of life and combat hidden hunger.

Email: angara.ed@gmail.com

Vital Signs Issue 69 Vol. 3, November 1-30 2014