2020 May 27
Despite becoming an upper middle-income country in 2019, Sri Lanka still bears the triple burden of health conditions relating to underweight and overweight in addition to the presence of micronutrient deficiencies. In truth, with the population of Sri Lanka set to rise exponentially by the year 2030, so will the demand for food and proper nutrition.
For context, Sri Lanka experiences moderate hunger in relation to global hunger levels, ranking 66th of 117 qualifying countries, according to the 2019 Global Hunger Index (GHI). The World Food Programme in Sri Lanka recognizes under-nutrition, in particular, as a serious challenge in achieving a food secure future for Sri Lanka. This concern is further highlighted through the fact that, statistically, Sri Lanka has a 9% prevalence of undernourishment and faces a 195 kcal/person/day intensity in terms of food deprivation, according to data from the 2019 Global Food Security Index.
These trends indicate an urgent need to address the challenges of food security and ensure equal access to proper nutrition among all Sri Lankans. In lieu of World Hunger Day, we take a look at Sri Lanka’s challenges in safeguarding food security and proper nutrition.
Managing Food Waste: a missed opportunity
Food waste or loss refers to the discarding of edible food at both retail and consumer levels. High amounts of food waste eventually lead to reduced food availability and an increasingly vulnerable food system, especially in times of crisis. In brief, it represents a missed opportunity to safeguard food security and lessen environmental impacts in the process.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Sri Lanka identifies rapid urbanization, changes in diets and lifestyles and the expansion of retail chains as three main factors that drive food wastage in the island. The amount of food waste in Colombo is estimated at 353 tons per day, which is half of the total waste generated in the island, according to a policy brief published by the FAO. The brief also highlighted the fact that high percentages of food waste are generated by institutional canteens and through event catering. While many households are responsible for wasting food on a daily basis, the bulk of food wastage also occurs during the storing and transporting of food from farms and fields to the market.
Be it poor spending habits, throwing away meals after over-serving or restricted and inefficient modes of transport and delivery, food loss results in a considerable waste of time, resources, energy and land.
However, Sri Lanka is making headway in addressing food waste management. Local charities like The Soup Bowl and the Robin Hood Army work with restaurants and supermarket chains to collect and redistribute food to the needy. According to the FAO, several private companies adopt good practices and establish policies that monitor food waste in canteens. To remedy gaps in data, the University of Ruhuna has also worked on providing quantitative data on food waste in Sri Lanka over the past few years.
What can you do?
1. Shop wisely.
Although buying in bulk is convenient, this habit may lead to more waste. Making more trips to the store every few days may help you form the habit of not buying more than you need. Stick to a shopping list and avoid buying food products that are not on the list.
2. Reduce clutter in your fridge.
Distinguish between being well-stocked and filling your fridge with unnecessary items.
3. Plan ahead.
Think about your meal routine for the upcoming days or week before heading to the store. Think about what you plan to cook or how you can use leftovers.
4. Keep track of what you throw away.
Taking note of the food you throw on a regular basis helps you plan better for next time.
5. Learn to preserve and upscale.
Fruits can be used to make smoothies. Use wilted vegetables for making a delicious soup. Canning the excess of certain ripe fruits and making preservatives and pickles are a smart way to make long-lasting treats.
6. Be mindful of your portions.
Don’t serve more than you can eat in one meal.
Gender equality: Key to ending hunger
An observation worth noting is that hunger and malnutrition often occur at the intersections of gender and socio-economic inequalities in Sri Lanka. In an effort to understand the role of gender equality on food security in Sri Lanka, Pulse spoke to Heshani Ranasinghe, the Programme and Policy Officer – Gender at the World Food programme Sri Lanka.
“A large portion of women in Sri Lanka depend on their partners for income to purchase food as only 35% of women are participating in the labour market. Therefore, women’s ability to make their own decisions in accessing food and proper nutrition are disturbingly low.”
Commenting on the present COVID-19 outbreak, Heshani highlighted the fact that such crises could exacerbate existing inequalities since women, especially those in areas such as the garment sector, are more likely to lose employment which further decreases their ability to purchase the food they require.
She also pointed out that conditions such as anaemia and obesity are common health problems that women face. In fact, the demographic and health survey (2016) revealed that 1 in 5 women in Sri Lanka suffer from anaemia while 1 in 2 women are overweight. Such health concerns can be attributed to a lack of awareness on the importance of nutrition as well as food-related behaviour patterns while being food insecure. The gender gap within the context of food security is further highlighted through data showing 55% of women-headed households in the Northern and Uva provinces being food insecure, compared to 39% of male-headed households.
Although the common acknowledgement is that women are also engaged mainly in food preparation, Heshani reflected on statistics that show how women are engaged in the agriculture sector as food producers with not only 29.7% women in the labour market working in the agriculture sector, 78.9% of females also contribute through unpaid family work in the same context, according to a gender country assessment by the FAO.
However, Heshani noted that “while females contribute much to the food sector, their engagement is at a low skilled level and not recognized. Many of them are engaged in subsistence livelihoods which are home-based productions or micro-enterprises. As a result, women are much less likely to have any form of decision-making power in accessing technical skills and other services to improve their farm-based production.”
Addressing the gender gap
“Policy implementations should adopt approaches that involve consulting with women and girls to identify barriers and develop systematic strategies to improve their economic engagement, specifically in terms of increasing their decision-making power in household food security,” stated Heshani. “Recognizing the contribution of women to food security and championing women’s efforts in ensuring access to proper nutrition at household and community levels are important.” Moreover, advocacy efforts aimed at allocating funds and increasing campaigns towards the promotion of healthy eating among nutritionally vulnerable groups such as children under five years, adolescent girls and pregnant and lactating mothers are necessary, requiring social and behaviour change efforts related to their food selection, preparations and consumption.
The team at the World Food Programme in Sri Lanka is also working on developing a Social and Behaviour Change Communication Strategy which would focus on better nutrition practices. The strategy aims to enhance the positioning of better nutrition at all levels of society; focus on gender roles favourable to nutrition, increase resource mobilization through public and private sector engagement and ownership in addition to increasing advocacy to strengthen policies, services and integrated systems that support nutrition.
“Ensuring food security for all is key,” says Heshani, “food security programming requires a gender-sensitive lens and there have to be special programs and budgets to support vulnerable communities such as women-headed households.”
Ensuring food security amid and after COVID-19
Most concerns surrounding fresh food stores shutting down indefinitely, stocks dwindling in supermarkets and broken supply chains continuing to disrupt food deliveries have been addressed since the pandemic first hit the island in late February and early March.
Farmers in Sri Lanka are among the hardest hit, due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Research by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) identifies that widening wholesale-retail price spreads and restricted access to necessities such as fertilizer and seeds have disadvantaged farmers and adversely affected food production in the country. Additionally, panic buying, rising prices, closing wholesale markets and reduced agricultural production are some of several factors that are causing reduced availability and access to food in addition to aggravating existing conditions of malnutrition among vulnerable groups.
With many entities warning of potential challenges to food security and proper nutrition amid the COVID-19 crisis, government interventions in Sri Lanka have caused minimal disruptions in food production and distribution processes, for the most part. Measures taken by the government, in terms of regulating food prices and establishing price controls, have helped ensure that the disadvantaged are not left in hunger. However, post-COVID measures are also set to determine the future of Sri Lanka’s food security as the government looks to recover an economy that was strained by the public health crisis.