Malnutrition: Paying it forward

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Hunger, or the craving for food, is a complex human desire that must be met first and foremost on the physiological level before it impacts the whole organism and triggers a whole new set of mental and emotional responses to satisfy that need.

A family of four, the ideal mother-and-father-plus-two-children configuration, may live fairly decently with at least three square meals a day, and then some, on a monthly income of, say P100,000. For most Filipinos, however, the reality is far from that ideal. It is a known fact that the average Filipino family is made up of two parents and four or five children. In many cases, the extended household can reach up to eight or 12 people.

And the monthly income is way below half that level. The lower it gets, the deeper the drop in the budget for food goes. What lurks behind this concept of spending power versus the family budget is a subtle but devastating reality with deep and lasting ramifications on the future of an economy: malnutrition.

The independent organization Save the Children has come up with the numbers, placing the cost of hunger on the Philippine economy at P328 billion a year, particularly on education and workforce productivity. The amount is equivalent to nearly 3 percent of the country’s output as measured by gross domestic product (GDP) in 2013 alone.


The amount sums up at P166.5 billion in lost income as a result of the lower level of education achieved due to malnutrition during childhood, P160 billion in lost productivity due to premature deaths among children, and P1.23 billion in additional education costs to cover grade repetitions linked to undernutrition.

The estimates do not include health costs that would probably knock off an additional 0.5 percent to 1.6 percent from GDP.

In the study, “Cost of Hunger: Philippines,” Save the Children pointed out that chronic undernutrition leads to stunted growth, an irreversible condition associated with impaired cognitive and reduced school performance, as well as poor work capacity and productivity. The study was conducted by Indicium Research, commissioned by Save the Children Philippines in collaboration with the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology.

Stunting, as evidenced by a child’s small body stature, is the most prevalent manifestation of undernutrition, with a chronic effect on a child’s growth and development. According to the study, it is more predictive of economic outcomes like productivity and income than other indicators.

From conception up to the second birthday, the first 1,000 days of a child’s life is a unique window of opportunity for growth and development. Now, this is quite significant and cannot be overstated in the sense that undernutrition during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life results in stunting at age 24 to 59 months and the damage done is already long-term and irreversible.

Given its long-term impact on the economy, spending on nutrition must be imperative on the part of the government. Needless to say, it is cost-effective in terms of return-on-investment.

Sadly, the Philippines spends less than 1 percent, or 0.52 percent of its general government expenditures, for nutrition-specific interventions, compared with the average allocation of 2.1 percent across 24 countries with available data, based on separate analyses by the International Food Policy Research Institute and the Global Nutrition Report.

Clearly, there is a need for the Duterte administration to invest in nutrition, considering that the President himself has equated the campaign against corruption and illegal drugs to the future generations of Filipinos beyond his six-year term.

It is stunning to read that 95 Filipino children died every single day in 2015 simply because there was no food on the family’s table. What was more revolting and repulsive was finding out that the steady decline in the prevalence of underweight and stunting among Filipino children observed from 1989 to 2013 took a 180-degree turn in 2015. That placed the Philippines among the top 50 countries with the highest rates of wasting and stunting.

With nutrition as the cornerstone of all development efforts, the study is emphatic in pointing out that for every $1 spent on averting the trend of wasting and stunting among our children, the Philippines can save more than $100 in health, education, and lost productivity costs.

What is at stake here is the health of the Filipino people and the shape of the Philippine economy that is to come. There are no excuses for turning a blind eye and ignoring the devastation of future generations brought upon a nation by hunger and malnutrition. Pay it forward now before the problem claims the lives of more hapless children who could otherwise be among the young, healthy workforce that has always been considered one of the Philippine economy’s biggest assets.

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1 Comment

  1. Sir, this editorial hits the nail on the head. Can copies of this article be sent to the relevant government agencies for their responses and proposed actions? Perhaps the Manila Times may wish to make this an issue which they will follow up every few months so that the desired action may be taken and the benefits realized, for the sake of the children and the Philippines of the future. God bless you all.