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Healthy eating, healthy kids: Urban children perspective

Children, in their growth period, are vulnerable and need proper food and nutrition for their overall development. Climate change may lead to food shortages and malnutrition, affecting the health and development of urban poor children.

Rajan clutches the five rupee coin tightly before slipping it carefully into his cavernous pocket. He can barely keep the smile of his face, even as his mouth begins to water at the thought of the goodies the corner raidhiwala has to offer.  Should he have a piping hot samosa with the red, spicy chutney or go for the sweet and sour dunked golgappas? He must think carefully, this will be his dinner and have to last him till his morning cup of tea, another 10 hours away. 

A sseven-year-old living in Shankaracharya Nagar, Bhopal, Rajan is the son of migrants who have moved to the city in search of a better life. On the days his mother returns home from work, too tired to cook, Rajan enjoys the privilege of having to decide his own dinner. Sometimes he shares a plate of the 2 minute maggi or pasta with his friend just like those happy children in the commercials, or occasionally foregoes this luxury to try the fascinating pan masala his 10 year old friend has recently introduced him to.

This is a common story here in the peri-urban areas of Bhopal. Climate disasters, crop failures and the promise of a better life in the city forces the poor to leave their rural homes and migrate into shabbier, unhygienic and unhealthy urban slums. With the parents compelled to go out and work in order to survive, and no public care system available, there is no one to ensure optimum nutritional intake or hygienic behaviour for children like Rajan. 

A survey conducted revealed that nearly 70 per cent of the children did not wash their hands before eating food, fell ill three to four times on an average through the year. Almost all of them did not drink milk or have any milk products regularly. Seasonal fruits and green leafy vegetables consumption was infrequent, not more than once in a fifteen days. Dals and vegetables were a part of a day’s meal, every alternate day. The Muslim children here fared a little better; they ate a protein rich, eggs and chicken diet fortnightly, which was not so frequent for the other communities. 

And even though, Rajan’s mother like the other women around her, cooks a bunch of rotis and a kadahi full of sabji for the family early in the morning, that food must last them throughout the day. With her unending work both outside and in the house, a reluctant partner to share household duties with, her burden is already overwhelming. Nutrition holds a low priority in her life.

But a healthy and nutritious diet is very important for the physical and mental growth of children. Micronutrient deficiency like iron, calcium and iodine deficiency affects their mental and physical development. So, can these dismal dietary practices of urban poor children be improved?

The first step towards this is to educate people on the importance of a healthy balanced diet, and then ensure the spread of this awareness through talks, schools and the media. In rural areas, agricultural practices that are resilient to climate change should be promoted to reduce cases of crop failure and keep the prices of farm products affordable. Scarcity of space for creating kitchen garden can be beaten by growing green leafy vegetables in small pots; promotion of low cost, easily available high nutritious food amongst children and improved food habits, all of this can help children on the path to a healthier future. 

This is a field story captured by GEAG during the children-focused vulnerability assessment in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. It is a part of the UNICEF India supported project titled ‘Building climate change and disaster resilience for urban children’.