The majority cannot afford a balanced diet

New analysis from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) shows that hundreds of millions of people in India above the international poverty line of $1.90 purchasing power parity (PPP) per person per day cannot afford a healthy or nutritious diet. This analysis confirms the fact that the problem of poor nutrition in India is largely on account of the unaffordability of good diets, and not on account of lack of information on nutrition or tastes or cultural preferences. The large majority of Indians cannot afford a balanced diet.

Every year, the FAO, in partnership with other United Nations organisations, publishes a report on food security across the world. This year, the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020 (SOFI 2020) was released on July 13. A new feature of SOFI 2020 is a detailed analysis of the “cost and affordability of healthy diets around the world”.

Types of diets

Three types of diet are defined. The first is termed a “basic energy sufficient” diet. This is one in which the required calorie intake is met by consuming only the cheapest starchy cereal available (say, rice or wheat). A requirement of 2,329 Kcal for a healthy young woman of 30 years is taken as the standard reference. The second is a “nutrient adequate” diet, one where the required calorie norms and the stipulated requirement of 23 macro- and micro-nutrients are met. This diet includes least cost items from different food groups. The third diet is a “healthy diet”. This is one which meets the calorie norm and the macro- and micro-nutrient norm and also allows for consumption of a diverse diet, from several food groups. Defining a healthy diet is more complex than the other two diets, and the FAO uses actual recommendations for selected countries. The Indian recommendation includes consumption of items from six groups: starchy staples, protein-rich food (legumes, meat and eggs), dairy, vegetables, fruits, and fats.

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Using data on retail prices of commodities in 170 countries, linear programming techniques are used to identify the cost of each of these diets. The following are the findings for South Asia. First, the energy-sufficient diet or eating only cereals to meet your calorie requirement costs around 80 cents a day in South Asia, and is thus affordable to a poor person or one defined as having an income of $1.9 a day. In short, the poor in India and other South Asian countries can get their calories by sticking to rice or wheat alone.

Second, the nutrient-adequate diet costs $2.12 a day. This is more than the international poverty line. If a person with income just above the poverty line spent her entire daily expenditure on food (ignoring fuel, transport, rent, medicines or any other expenditure), even then she would not be able to afford the nutrient-adequate diet. No one can, of course, survive by spending their entire income on food. The SOFI Report assumes that a person cannot spend more than 63% of total expenditure on food (that is, 37% would be required for non-food essentials).

Third, the healthy diet costs $4.07 a day, or more than twice the international poverty line. In other words, a healthy diet is totally unaffordable for those with incomes at even twice the poverty line. And what is this healthy diet? It includes 30 gm of cereal, 30 gm of pulses, 50 gm of meat/chicken/fish and 50 gm of eggs, 100 gm of milk, 100 gm of vegetables and fruit each, and 5 gm of oil a day. In short, a balanced and healthy meal but not excessive in any way.

How does this translate into numbers of people? The SOFI Report estimates that 18% of South Asians (numbering 586 million people) cannot afford the nutrient-adequate diet and 58% of South Asians (1,337 million people) cannot afford the healthy diet.

Affordability of healthy diets

These eye-opening and shocking numbers have got lost in the daily news of the pandemic. If anything, the number of people who cannot afford a healthy diet will have risen in the last three months, as employment and incomes collapsed for the majority of workers in the informal sector. Note that the Indian poverty line of 2011-12, as defined by the Tendulkar Committee, amounted to ₹33 per day in urban areas and ₹27 per day in rural areas, and corresponded roughly to $1 a day at international PPP prices. The Indian poverty line (there has been no redefinition in the last decade) is thus lower than the international poverty line used in the SOFI Report.

Whatever the limitations of the SOFI methodology, there are some clear and simple messages. First, those we officially count as poor in India – with a cut-off that is lower than the international norm of $1.9 a day – cannot afford a nutrient-adequate diet let alone a healthy diet. This result is completely contrary to the view of scholars such as Arvind Panagariya that the poverty line in India “may not permit a comfortable existence, including a balanced diet, (but) allows above subsistence existence.” Second, even those with incomes of twice the international poverty line cannot afford a healthy diet. If we want to reduce malnutrition and food insecurity, we have to address the problem of affordability of healthy diets.

Should not at least one nutritious meal (with protein, fruits and vegetables) be ensured for the majority of our people, and particularly in this time of crisis? The Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana offers, up to November 2020, an additional 5 kg of wheat or rice and 1 kg of gram or lentils a month free of cost to all households with ration cards. This is welcome, of course, but utterly inadequate to address the massive and growing problem of malnutrition.

Madhura Swaminathan is Professor and Head of the Economic Analysis Unit, Indian Statistical Institute, Bengaluru

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 9:54:46 PM |

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