How nutrition data can help predict food insecurity risk

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network reports on emerging food security conditions related to drought and other climate crises. Photo by: USAID / FEWS.net / CC-BY-NC-ND

Malnutrition has long been thought merely as an outcome of the lack of safe and nutritious food. Today, it may also predict the susceptibility of people to food insecurity.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, an authority on information about food security in some of the world’s most food-insecure countries, is now exploring this relationship, building a database with historical nutrition and mortality data, which would inform its early warning analysis.

“There is a growing appreciation that, even in the context of emergencies, there is a need to have a comprehensive understanding of the nutrition situation, which extends beyond typical indicators of acute malnutrition to include chronic undernutrition, dietary quality and micronutrient status, as well as linkages with health status, hygiene and sanitation, and caring practices,” Christine McDonald, nutrition adviser for FEWS NET, told Devex.

McDonald has recently returned from her trip to South Sudan, which according to some news outlets is facing a “looming famine.” There, she and her colleagues put the nutrition database to use, enabling them to identify seasonal trends in levels of acute malnutrition and examine the association between levels of severe acute malnutrition and mortality.

What further insights can be gleaned for this project?  Here are some excerpts of our conversation with McDonald.

How do you identify who within a given population is particularly vulnerable to malnutrition?

From a biological perspective, children under 5 years of age and pregnant and lactating women are particularly vulnerable to undernutrition given their increased nutrient requirements to support growth and development. Children under 5 are also susceptible to various infectious diseases, which can further amplify their risk of undernutrition, if contracted. However, it is also important to consider vulnerability from a socio-demographic perspective, and identify segments of the population that may be at risk of undernutrition for reasons related to geography, culture, ethnicity or economic status.

What has most surprised you since you started working with FEWS NET to incorporate nutrition into the project's assessment process?

I have been surprised by the fact that there really is a lot of nutrition information “out there,” whether it is national-level data, provincial- or regional-level data, or local-level data. However, there have been very few large-scale efforts to compile and consolidate the information in a systematic way and make this information easily accessible for everyone.

How can the nutrition analysis by FEWS NET contribute to longer-term development efforts?

I hope that our efforts to better understand the relationships between food security and nutrition would improve the design, targeting and implementation of interventions that are important from a development perspective.

Want to learn more? Check out Feeding Development's campaign site and tweet us using #FeedingDev.

Feeding Development is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with ACDI/VOCA, Chemonics, Fintrac, GAIN, Nestlé and Tetra Tech to reimagine solutions for a food-secure future from seed and soil to a healthy meal.

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About the author

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    Ma. Eliza Villarino

    Currently based in New York City, Eliza is a veteran journalist focused on covering the most pressing issues and latest innovations in global health, humanitarian aid, sustainability and development. A member of Mensa, Eliza has earned a master's degree in public affairs and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.