At the age of 2, Lucy looked feeble, pale, and malnourished, with protruded ribs and a bloated belly. Her mother Lydia is a widow, living with her three other children in a mud-walled shack at the Lunyanywi village of Tanzania’s southern highlands.

Although Lydia grows fruits on her farm, she hardly has her children eat them.

With a lack of awareness of the nutritional benefits of fruits, Lydia mostly feeds her children with maize porridge, which lacks important nutrients they need to grow healthy.

She’s not alone. In Tanzania’s southern Njombe region, she’s among many rural women whose children are entangled in a circle of malnutrition.

Tanzania has made remarkable achievements in fighting malnutrition, with a significant reduction in stunting, wasting, and underweight among children under 5 years old. The prevalence of chronic malnutrition — stunting — among children under the age of 5 fell from 50% in 1992 to 34% in 2015. Despite this progress, the problem remains widespread.

The country is still suffering from different forms of undernutrition, including low birth weight, stunting, underweight, wasting, vitamin A deficiency, and anemia.

Moreover, overnutrition and diet-related diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and hypertension are on the rise.

Under its National Nutrition Strategy, the country is, however, aiming to sharpen the focus on improved nutrition status especially of the vulnerable groups through sound policies, programs, and effective use of resources.

In Njombe, one of Tanzania’s food baskets, more than half of children under the age of 5 are stunted.

Malnutrition is a serious public health problem in Tanzania, affecting mostly women of reproductive age and young children. Globally, the disease is responsible for the deaths of 3.5 to 5 million children younger than 5 years old each year.

Although most people in Njombe associate the disease with sorcery, experts believe many children are malnourished because they don’t get sufficient nutrients from the food to build a strong immune system.

Tanzanian gov’t to invest more in nutrition

As part of its broader push to improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture to ensure people get access to quality food to lead a healthy life in line with sustainable development goals, Tanzania’s government in 2014 conducted a public expenditure review on nutrition to identify gaps, problems, and opportunities for scaling up nutrition interventions and facilities.

The review, conducted by the Finance Ministry with technical support from UNICEF, was meant to address the lack of data on the amount and type of funds allocated and spent on nutrition.

Obey Assery, a senior official at the prime minister’s office and responsible for the coordination of nutrition policy, said the government, based on the findings, is now determined to invest more in nutrition to reduce the rate of chronic malnutrition to less than 25% by 2025.

“We have several strategies to fight malnutrition including food fortification programs and raising community awareness on better nutrition,” he told Anadolu Agency

According to Assery, the government is aiming to promote sustainable agriculture to provide better access to food among small scale farmers.

The initiative entails the promotion of equal access to land, technology, sustainable food production systems to ensure that healthy foods are accessible and more affordable.

Assery said the government in the 2021/2022 fiscal year will effectively raise its budgetary spending on nutrition and develop community-based programs to help rural communities cope with the intricacies of the growing problem.

In the Ludewa district of the Njombe region, every farmer has a story to tell about malnutrition and how it has weakened their children’s health.

Five-year-old Elizabeth was diagnosed with acute malnutrition. She barely ate anything when her mother Martha Lukambo rushed her to the district hospital.

“When the doctors examined her they told me she was critically ill and urgently needed intravenous fluids,” she said.

In Tanzania’s southern highlands, women rarely give their young children healthy diets. Instead, they rely on grains, notably maize and millet.

Maria Msangi, a senior nutritionist at the Tanzania Food and Nutrition Centre, said the triple burden of malnutrition in Njombe and other places is driven by the poor quality of children’s diets.

“Most rural children are not fed the minimum recommended diverse diets for healthy growth and development,” she told Anadolu Agency.

According to Msangi, only two in five infants under 6 months old are exclusively breastfed as it is recommended.

“The use of breast milk substitutes, such as milk-based formula, is worrying. Even children aged between 2 and 6 years are not fed fruits, vegetables, and animal-based proteins which are essential for their health, growth, and brain development,” she said.

“Unless local communities change their attitudes toward healthy eating, malnutrition will continue to haunt vulnerable groups, especially women and children.

While the country’s spending on nutrition almost doubled from $12.5 million in 2010 to $21.3 million in 2012, analysts say the actual rise was merely 22% of the total national expenditure — inadequate to address the nutrition challenges currently the country is confronting.

Owing to the budgetary shortfalls, the review found that only about 23% of the money allocated for nutritional programs was being disbursed.

Based on experts’ recommendations, the government support is now specifically targeting children under the age of 2 years old and pregnant women who are increasingly vulnerable to malnutrition.

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