Among the presidential aspirants, only Leni Robredo’s platform includes one compelling priority: clear focus on nutrition as an essential component of her health agenda. Her platform is unique, bannering the First 1,000 Days (F1K) program to reduce and prevent stunting that threatens one out of three Filipino children.
Robredo’s platform recognizes the vital link of food security and production to good nutrition, drawing on Kiko Pangilinan’s advocacy and strength, and mandates that good nutrition should be, by design, one major outcome of the Department of Agriculture.
The First 1,000 Days is the period from conception to the child’s 24th month. A child who suffers stunting at this period loses about 40% of brain mass, reducing the capacity for language skills, memory, and comprehension, starting life, thus, at an irreversible disadvantage. It is not surprising why Filipino children in public schools rank poorly in the Programme for International Student Assessment in reading, math, and science.
The impact is devastating. Compared to a non-stunted child, a stunted one has 10 times lower survival against common childhood illnesses, 5 years less of completed schooling, 40% lower wages as workers, and less healthy families when they begin a new generation.
Stunting silently degrades the Filipino human capital. In 2019, there were 3.4 million stunted children under five. Malnutrition takes a daily toll of 95 deaths of under-five children, as tragic and unnecessary as the fatalities of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a UNICEF study, the country loses $4.3 B annually from undernutrition, about 1.5% of our 2015 GDP.
‘Ayaw naming mabansot’
The country’s record in addressing stunting has been dismal. Stunting prevalence has been stagnant at about 30% in the over two decades. The Philippines belongs to the hall of shame in stunting burden index worldwide. We are the second shortest people in ASEAN, with stunting commonly perceived as hereditary rather than the result of poor maternal health, a deprived environment, and insufficient health and nutrition resources. As a middle-income country, the Philippines has no excuse to be in this league.
Two examples from Latin America demonstrate that effective leadership is key to stunting reduction. Strong political commitment across sectors and levels of government was one of three factors for Peru and Brazil’s success in reducing stunting, from 28% to 13% in 2008-2016 and from 37.1% to 7.1% in 1974-2006 respectively. Brazil established a Ministry of Social Development and Fight Against Hunger and implemented a Zero Hunger program not just as a social program, but as a model of economic development. Robredo cites the model in her speeches addressing food security and malnutrition.
The first 1,000 days of life is the critical window of opportunity for a child’s optimal growth and brain development. Proper nutrition in the F1K of a child bears significant impacts on Filipino human capital, a key tenet of Ambisyon Natin 2040.
With explicit support from the highest levels of leadership together with local governments of the First 1,000 Days Program, the Philippines, like Peru and Brazil, can ascend and become the next exemplar story in nutrition.
If only children could vote! – Rappler.com
Dr. Cecilia Acuin is a UP Los Baños adjunct professor and senior research chief at FNRI and IRRI, and a consultant to international agencies including the World Bank.
Cecilio Adorna is a retired Unicef officer in various regions and was humanitarian chief and director of health, education, and social welfare for the UN in East Timor, and the director of the global partnerships office in New York.
Ellen Villate is former director of Helen Keller International, Philippines, a senior researcher at the Nutrition Center of the Philippines, and a consultant to governments and international agencies including USAID and Unicef.