Bringing Back Nutrition to the Policy Table

The nutritional status of the Filipino children is buried in dusty academic journal articles that policymakers may not be aware of. It's about time to bring out the issues on nutrition into the policy table. 

The nutritional status of Filipino children barely improved over the past 25 years. The rate of stunting in 1993 was 39 percent, falling to only 33 percent in 2015. In the same period, the rate of underweight children fell slightly from 24 percent to 22 percent, and the rate of wasting barely moved from 8 percent to 7 percent. Educational achievements both in elementary and high school also faltered over the same period. 

These lackluster nutrition and education trends have occurred during a time of relatively high economic growth, showing that the benefits of growth are not trickling down fast enough, if at all, to the neediest population. Even more seriously, Philippine nutrition indicators are worse than comparable neighboring countries, e.g., Thailand and Malaysia. 

Hunger, stunting, and wasting are so palpable at the personal level, yet they do not seem to unduly distress government officials or business and civic leaders. To make the point clearer, UNICEF/Philippines recently commissioned two studies. One study shows the huge economic costs of malnutrition, to the tune of US$4.5 billion a year, or 1.5 percent of Philippine GDP in 2015. Another study strongly argued for the business case for nutrition investment in the country. 

I have also been reading on the link between children’s nutrition and their school performance. One longitudinal study by Glewwe, Jacoby, and King on children in Cebu confirm that better nutrition improves school outcomes because well-nourished children enter school earlier and have more time to learn. They also have greater learning productivity per year of schooling. Thus, a one standard deviation increase in height: (a) raises the achievement test score by 5.0 points; (b) leads parents to enroll their child in school nearly two months earlier; and (c) reduces the probability of repeating first grade by around 10 percent. Finally, malnourished children are more likely to repeat first grade.

These results are very positive, but they are buried in dusty academic journal articles that policymakers may not be aware of. It’s really time to bring nutrition out of the closet and the library and into the policy table.

About the Author
Mr. Oscar F. Picazo is a retired specialist in health systems, health economics, and social policy. He has worked in 24 countries for the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and as an independent consultant. He returned to the Philippines in 2009 and became a senior research consultant for the Philippine Institute of Development Studies.
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