The Increase in Food Prices “Costs” More Than We Think

Understanding the food crisis’ effect on nutrition
FAO Food Price Index

This post was written by HKI’s Vice President and Regional Director for Africa, Shawn Baker.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recently announced that food prices have hit a record high. This new surge in food prices has garnered considerable media attention. From articles in the Guardian to The New York Times, people are discussing the reasons for this increase and the effect it will have on the world’s population. Many even think high food prices have sparked the recent wave of political upheaval across North Africa. However, very little attention has been paid to the far more devastating and pernicious impact that the increase in food prices is having on the general public.

This was especially apparent to me as I was reading the January 8th-14th edition of The Economist. I noticed there were a number of articles that dealt with the increase in food prices, including “Food in Mexico,” “Price rises in China,” and “Indian Inflation.” These articles discussed the impact of rising food prices on the national economy, or on consumers’ ability to purchase food, or the environmental roots of the crisis. None, however, mentioned increases in “hidden hunger” which should be recognized as a devastating effect on the poor – resulting in increased sickness and death and decreased learning potential.

“Hidden hunger” results when people eat food that is cheap and filling but lacks essential vitamins and minerals (The NY Times Op-Ed Columnist, Nicholas Kristof, wrote an article on Hidden Hunger after visiting HKI’s programs in Guinea in 2009).

Deficiencies in vitamin A, iron, zinc, and folic acid increase the risk of sickness and death and undermine human development and economic productivity. Reducing malnutrition through the control of micronutrient deficiencies is a highly cost-effective public health intervention; a conclusion reached by, among others, the Copenhagen Consensus in 2008. Globally, over two billion people suffer from these conditions, which are exacerbated by increases in staple food prices. Poor households, who already spend an inordinate portion of their income on food, tend to respond to increased food prices by maintaining levels of staple foods at the expense of more costly fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry and fish that are rich in life-saving vitamins and minerals.

Helen Keller International is working to reduce hidden hunger in many ways:

  1. Our vitamin A supplementation programs are designed to prevent vitamin A deficiency in young children. We work to ensure children receive a dose of high-potency vitamin A every six months.
  2. We collaborate on large-scale efforts in partnership with the private sector to fortify essential cooking ingredients such as cooking oil and wheat flour with essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A, iron and folic acid.
  3. We teach mothers to produce and consume micronutrient-rich fruits and vegetables through our Homestead Food Production program and also work to increase the production and consumption of vitamin-A rich orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes (Nicholas Kristof’s Thanksgiving column gave praise to the nutritional benefits of the orange-fleshed sweet potato).
Child eating an OFSP meal

Child eating an OFSP meal

In order to prevent the poor from suffering even more due to the recent rise in food prices, more efforts need to be concentrated on preventing hidden hunger.  To read more about how Helen Keller International’s programs help address the food price crisis read our position paper.

A letter to the editor Shawn wrote on this topic was published in The Economist on January 20, 2011.

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Categories: Africa, Reducing Malnutrition

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