Improving global nutrition through stronger food systems

In this Q&A, Sandy Remancus, Project Director of FHI 360’s Food and Nutrition Technical Assistance III Project (FANTA), discusses recent progress made on achieving sustainable food systems. FANTA is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Improving global nutrition through stronger food systems
This year’s World Food Day focuses on sustainable food systems for food security and nutrition. What is the relationship between food systems and nutritional outcomes?

Through various initiatives — such as the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future Initiative, the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement and the 1,000 Days Partnership — the international community has made a significant commitment to improving nutrition around the world. To meet the goals of these efforts, we need to focus not only on clinical interventions to address malnutrition, but also on safe, healthy food systems that can lead to more sustainable, scalable results.

A focus on food systems means making investments that put the right information and resources in the hands of communities and households to prevent malnutrition in a number of areas: improved dietary quality and food consumption (especially during the 1,000 days from conception to a child’s second birthday), better child-feeding practices, increased access to and availability of higher quality water and sanitation services, and healthier and more diverse agricultural production choices. Food systems should also include equity considerations, such as offering women and other economically disadvantaged groups greater opportunities to grow and earn from the production of nutritious food.

Most of the world’s population at risk of malnutrition either grows its own food or buys it in local markets. In the past, agricultural programs focused on increasing the amount of food available. We now understand that healthy food systems should also focus on the production and availability of diverse foods that provide the nutrients needed for adequate nutrition and health. This is particularly important in order to prevent malnutrition in populations most at risk — children under two and pregnant and lactating women. Issues about food safety, which emerge all along the value chain — from the choice of inputs to the processing of foods — are also crucial to consider if we are to protect consumers’ health and nutrition.

Work at the national level with policymakers and other stakeholders is still needed to increase support for effective, locally driven solutions that link nutrition and food systems. Can you give some examples of successful collaborations between national policymakers and FANTA?

FANTA has worked with national stakeholders in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, Haiti and Uganda to increase political and social commitment to improving nutrition by using PROFILES, an evidence-based advocacy tool. Through computer modeling, PROFILES shows the consequences of malnutrition on a country’s development and estimates the cost savings that the reduction of malnutrition would have over a fixed time (in terms of lives improved and saved) and the economic losses averted. These findings are then used to bring together national stakeholders from many sectors — health, nutrition, agriculture, family planning, finance and gender — to discuss the cross-sector actions needed to reduce malnutrition. This process can be used to jump-start actions such as developing or refining nutrition and agriculture policies, determining the cost of implementing nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive programming and identifying ways to scale up interventions.

In Tanzania, FANTA has worked closely with the Prime Minister’s Office and a team of government officials — including senior policy specialists and technical advisors from the Office of Public Service Management; the Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives; the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare; and the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries — to revise the national food and nutrition policy. We are also using evidence-based approaches to strengthen cross-sectoral commitments to reducing malnutrition.

In Uganda, FANTA worked with the government to develop the multisectoral Uganda Nutrition Action Plan 2011–2016 (UNAP). Now we are working with the Office of the Prime Minister and across several sectors, including health, agriculture and social development, to ensure that the roles and responsibilities outlined in the UNAP are fulfilled. We have also provided technical assistance for the integration of nutrition into guidelines and tools for non-health sectors, and for formative research on the nutritional capacity of health and agriculture workers to implement the UNAP.

What are some tools or methods that encourage linkages between food systems and nutrition?

Optifood is a tool that provides governments with key information on gaps in the nutrient content of locally available foods that result in less-than-optimal diets. This computer program uses scientific evidence to suggest locally available, affordable food combinations, with the goal of providing a nutritionally adequate diet. FANTA recently used Optifood in Guatemala to determine how best to improve children’s diets at the lowest possible cost using locally available foods. This activity is leading to renewed discussions between the Government of Guatemala, USAID, development partners and the private sector on the role of fortified foods in meeting identified nutrient gaps and on how the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock can support the production of more nutritious foods.

Visit the FANTA website to learn more and to access the project’s latest tools, publications and other resources.

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