More than four years of acute economic crisis have left most families in Lebanon struggling to survive, with disastrous impacts on children’s nutrition and diets — and consequently on their overall well-being, development and their very survival.
The need for proper nutrition is particularly critical in early childhood, as what children eat determines their survival and shapes their growth, development and learning for the rest of their lives. Well-nourished children grow, learn, develop, play and participate more effectively. Eating sufficient quantities from a diverse range of food groups — which, according to the UNICEF-WHO children’s dietary diversity score in early childhood, includes breast milk, fruits and vegetables, grains, eggs, meat, nuts and dairy products — is vital to fuel children’s brains and bodies and allow them to grow to their full potential. Children need to consume foods from at least five of the eight recommended food groups to meet the minimum dietary diversity.
Globally, 90 percent of children living in extreme food poverty are especially vulnerable to severe stunting and wasting, the most dangerous forms of undernutrition in early childhood, which can increase children's risk of death by up to 12 times and impair their ability to develop and reach their full potential.
In Lebanon thousands of children, including Syrian and Palestinian refugees’ children — especially the youngest, girls, the poorest or the most marginalized — do not have sufficiently nutritious diets. A 2021-2022 survey showed that three in four children below age five experienced food poverty, which means their diets included only four food groups at most. Even more alarmingly, more than one in four children below age five live in severe food poverty. This means that the diets of 85,000 Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian children include at most two food groups. For example, a few spoonsful of porridge and a small cup of milk may be their only meal of the day, every day, leaving them highly vulnerable to severe stunting and wasting — the most life-threatening forms of undernutrition in early childhood.
Child food poverty in Lebanon, including Syrian and Palestinian refugees, is mainly driven by poverty and economic vulnerabilities coupled with a lack of knowledge and practice on healthy nutrition. Making matters worse, Lebanon’s social protection system needs to become increasingly sensitive to the nutritional needs of children.
Bold, concerted actions are needed to end child food poverty in Lebanon, with a focus on improving diets, nutrition practices and services for all children and women, alongside the sustained expansion of social assistance.
Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian families must be able to provide the nutritious foods their children need to survive and thrive, but they cannot do it alone. They need accessible services and affordable, nutritious foods coupled with responsive caregiving practices for their children.
In response to this urgent health problem, the Public Health Ministry, in partnership with UNICEF and the nutrition sector partners, has developed a clear strategy on how to address the many burdens of malnutrition in Lebanon and is working at the same time to implement that strategy based on five axes:
1. Strengthening multisectoral nutrition governance.
2. Using health systems that provide universal coverage of basic nutrition services.
3. Developing resilient and sustainable food systems that stimulate the production, distribution and retailing of nutritious foods for children.
4. Raising awareness on the importance of creating a safe and supportive environment for healthy nutrition for children of all ages.
5. Making social protection systems more sensitive to nutritional vulnerabilities.
Yet, a strong commitment from all stakeholders from different sectors is needed for the success of this strategy.
Good nutrition hardwires a child’s chances to lead a healthier and more productive life. Correcting malnutrition is very cost-effective: for every dollar invested in preventing malnutrition, eight dollars in treatment are saved.
Ending food poverty among children is a surefire way to protect entire generations, and as such, a smart investment in the socio-economic development of Lebanon.
Dr. Firass Abiad is Lebanon's Public Health Minister.
Edouard Beigbeder is the UNICEF representative in Lebanon.
More than four years of acute economic crisis have left most families in Lebanon struggling to survive, with disastrous impacts on children’s nutrition and diets — and consequently on their overall well-being, development and their very survival.The need for proper nutrition is particularly critical in early childhood, as what children eat determines their survival and shapes their growth,...