Half of Cambodians’ nutrition affected amid pandemic

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Chidren sit at a food stall in Boeung Kak commune of Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district. Heng Chivoan

More than half of households in Cambodia have needed to cut back on the size and quality of meals at some point during the Covid-19 pandemic, while nearly two billion people in the Asia-Pacific region were already unable to afford a healthy diet prior to the outbreak, according to newly released findings by several global organisations.

Complementary data collected by UNICEF, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organisation was published on February 1 in a report titled “UN Covid-19 socio-economic impact assessment in Cambodia”.

The joint press release said that although access to food has not been affected greatly, people have been forced by economic circumstances to adopt strategies including borrowing food, reducing consumption and greater reliance on less expensive options.

“Households also resorted to more radical livelihood coping strategies, such as reducing essential spending on education and health care, selling productive assets and sending household members to other provinces to look for work,” said the press release.

Food prices increased during the beginning of last year, especially for meat, eggs and fish products in the capital and fresh vegetables in provincial markets. Although prices eventually stabilised, many households decreased their food intake and diet diversity in important categories such as products rich in protein, vitamin A and iron, according to the UN.

“These impacts are most worrying for more vulnerable household members, especially pregnant women and children. The problems increased in the period surveyed: in August, 30 per cent of women’s diets failed to reach minimum diversity, but this increased to 50 per cent by November,” according to the findings.

The press statement noted that the government expanded social protection cash transfers in an effort to reduce hardships and meet needs of more than 600,000 of its most vulnerable citizens.

However, more investment is required to further expand social assistance and ensure improvements are made to food systems to increase access to nutritious foods, boost productivity, improve food safety, and protect employment while stimulating demand for domestically produced foods.

Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation spokesman Touch Channy told The Post on February 2 that he could not comment on the findings because he had not yet received a detailed report, but it was true that the government had expanded funding provided to people most affected by the pandemic.

“Regarding social assistance, the government introduced two programmes. In the first, we have delivered cash to pregnant women and children under the age of two, beginning over a year ago.

“In the second, we have delivered cash to poor and vulnerable people. This programme was implemented seven months ago. Our goal is to reduce malnutrition because the Covid-19 crisis has badly affected people’s dietary habits,” Channy said.

For the future, Channy said the government is studying new projects including expansion of the IDPoor social protections for families to better care for poor people while the nation and the world endure the crisis.

UNICEF representative Foroogh Foyouzat said that malnutrition has been a long-term challenge in Cambodia, one recognised by the government and its development partners. Much progress has been made in the last decade, but the pandemic jeopardises that progress.

“As UN agencies working closely with the government, we commend it on its expansion of the cash transfer programmes to reduce hardships. Now, we must invest in the critical first thousand days of children’s lives. Such investment also contributes to each child’s educational attainments and productivity for the rest of their life,” she said.

Cambodia is one of the countries with the highest malnutrition rates in the region, with 32 per cent of children under five identified as stunted and 10 per cent identified as wasted.

The UN agencies mentioned above are committed to working with all partners to realise the goals of the National Strategy of Food Security and Nutrition so that all children receive improved nutrition and a better start in life.