Information Note #5: Ensuring Food Security and Nutrition during COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic and measures meant to slow the transmission of the virus are resulting in economic downturns in countries worldwide, which have led to increased food insecurity and malnutrition.
Before the pandemic, Cambodia had made impressive progress on food security and nutrition. Yet, the prevalence of undernourishment stood at 14% and malnutrition persisted in all its forms. One in three children under 5 suffered from chronic malnutrition and one in ten from acute malnutrition. Micronutrient deficiencies were widespread, and obesity was on the rise.
The United Nations system in Cambodia is concerned about the impacts of COVID-19 on the food security and nutrition status of vulnerable groups including the poor, women and children, the people with underling health conditions, old and the unsheltered. Food insecurity and malnutrition are closely linked with human dignity, and access to food and nutrition is basic human right of every human being. Indeed, loss of income and livelihoods reduces access to food and aggravates the difficulties many face to access affordable, healthy and adequate diets, as well as services.
A United Nations study released in April 2021 showed that in the last six months, households have increasingly adopted coping strategies to access food including reducing food intake, relying on cheaper options, and borrowing. It highlighted that IDPoor households, small size (1-3 members) and households with members having disabilities were more likely to have poor food security and nutrition outcomes. At the end of 2020 only half of Cambodian women aged 15-49 consumed a sufficiently diverse diet (down from 70% earlier in the year). Public health experts further anticipated in a Lancet article (July 2020) a 14% increase in acute malnutrition in low and lower-middle income countries due to COVID-19.
Investing to protect food security and nutrition is essential in the COVID-19 response as:
- Healthy, balanced diets for all are key for boosting immunity and preventing non-communicable diseases that are risk factors for higher COVID-19 morbidity and mortality.
- Malnutrition in childhood and pregnancy has many adverse and intergenerational consequences for child growth and development with life-long impacts on education and chronic disease risks.
- It has far-reaching consequences for human capital, economic productivity, and national development overall. In 2016, it was estimated that malnutrition costed the economy 266 million USD per year (1.7% GDP).
The United Nations promotes rights-based, integrated, multi-sectoral, systems approach to food security and nutrition. Through such initiatives as the UN Nutrition, it speaks in one voice to elevate the prioritization and commitment to food security and nutrition and access to food for all while working with partners to realise the goals of the National Food Security and Nutrition Strategy as well as the recently launched roadmap for the prevention and treatment of wasting. It also supports interventions across the food, education, health, social protection, and WASH systems. With the upcoming United Nations Food Systems Summit in July 2021, the United Nations is supporting the Royal Government to conduct inclusive dialogues, promote awareness and mobilize multistakeholder action to create pathways for more sustainable food systems.
Specific to COVID-19, the United Nations is contributing quality data through regular household-based primary data collection to measure the evolution of the food security and nutrition situation and the effectiveness of mitigation measures.
National social assistance efforts, notably the significant increase in cash transfers and the provision of food rations in lieu of school feeding provided by the Government at regular intervals since April 2020, have played an important role to mitigate further damage on food security and nutrition of the poorest. The United Nations supported these efforts and will continue to engage through advocacy and technical assistance to enhance both the nutrition-sensitivity and shock-responsiveness of social assistance.
To complement national initiatives in the COVID-19 response, the United Nations is also directly providing food packages and cash transfers - at times combined with building productive assets, technical training, and extension services - to the most vulnerable groups, including poor households affected by multiple shocks, informal workers, returning migrants, small-scale farmers, young children, pregnant and lactating women.
For instance, the United Nations provided take-home rations to support over 89,500 students from IDPoor households. Another round of food distribution will take place in June 2021. The United Nations and its partners are also supporting approximately 1500 households impacted by COVID-19 in Siem Reap and Banteay Meanchey Province to restore their livelihoods.
In relation to the recent COVID-19 lockdown measures, as highlighted in Information Note #2 on Social Protection, the United Nations system in Cambodia advocated for a human rights-based response to COVID-19 based on a “do no harm” approach with emphasis on: (i) protecting the access of all, including the most vulnerable people to diverse, balanced and nutritious diets through the provision of food assistance and the expansion of social protection; (ii) considering food production, marketing and distribution as essential services; (iii) enhancing two-way communication to more effectively address issues concerning food access; and (iv) establishing preparedness measures to enhance the response in case of future similar measures.
UN Cambodia’s Response to COVID-19 Information Notes are official documents from the United Nations in Cambodia intended for the media and other partners. They are prepared by the Office of the UN Resident Coordinator.