Nutrition-focused social protection is required to resolve the hunger pandemic

With the rising unemployment rate, there is an increasing worry that more ordinary Malaysians do not have sufficient access to nutritious food.

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Published in Astro Awani & Focus Malaysia, image by Astro Awani.

Over a year of the country lockdown and movement restriction, the Covid-19 pandemic reveals the fragility of the food system aside from the vulnerability of the healthcare system.

As of May 29, Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Alexander Nanta Linggi indicated that the food supply in Malaysia is sufficient throughout the full MCO (FMCO) period. However, due to a loss of jobs and income, more Malaysians do not have enough money to feed themselves and their families.

The situation became worse when Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announced FMCO equivalent to the MCO 1.0 that was announced nationwide in 2020, Jun 1 until Jun 14.

With the rising unemployment rate, there is an increasing worry that more ordinary Malaysians do not have sufficient access to nutritious food, in addition to struggling to make ends meet.

According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM), the unemployment rate in Apr 2021 is 4.6%, where a total of 742,700 individuals in Malaysia have been affected by the health crisis.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) “Families on the Edge” survey in Feb 2021 found that overall unemployment among heads of low-income urban families in Kuala Lumpur’s low-cost housing flats remains high, with one in three adults remain unemployed.

It is especially prevalent among female heads of households (HOH) and Person with Disabilities (PwD) HOH.

While unemployment among HOH has doubled from 7% in Sep 2020 to 15% in Dec 2020, unemployment among female HOH and PwD HOH has increased to 13.4% and 50%, respectively.

The Covid-19 pandemic also has modified food expenditure among urban and rural poor. With a reduction of income, the bottom 40% (B40) have to lower their food intake. They are relatively less capable of buying healthy food compared to the pre-pandemic era.

Such a scenario reflects under the same Unicef survey, where about 57% of households were unable to purchase sufficient food for survival.

According to Klang MP Charles Santiago, some Malaysians could only afford a plate of rice or a bowl of instant noodles with an egg daily. It is worrying as insufficient daily nutrient intake will put the health and well-being of the marginalised communities at risk.

Although the Malaysian government has initiated numerous social protection schemes through cash transfers to protect the lower-income households affected by the Covid-19 crisis, it was insufficient to provide merely RM500 for a family to survive in one month due to the rising cost of living.

The rising living cost issue has occurred before the Covid-19 pandemic emerges at the beginning of 2020. According to the DOSM’s Household Expenditure Survey Report 2019, the average monthly household expenditure has increased by 3.9%, from RM4,033 in 2016 to RM4,534 in 2019.

In urban areas, household expenditure has increased by 3.7% per year from RM4,402 to RM4,916. Meanwhile, as of rural areas, it has increased by 3.6% annually from RM2,725 to RM3,038 for the period between 2016 to 2019.

As a result, the poverty rate among low-income urban families remains high at 42%, according to the same Unicef survey. It can be seen among PwD HOH (55%) and female HOH (61%), with 1 in 2 and 6 in 10 lives in poverty.

As many found it hard to find a meal, there has been a significant rise of food aid recipients during the past few months. Pertubuhan Kesihatan dan Kebajikan Umum Malaysia (PKKUM)’s president Elisha Kor Krishnan noticed there are more people queuing to receive a free meal in Chow Kit area.

However, as the #FoodForAllProject purely relied on public donation, PKKUM only affords to support 110 packets of meal daily as of Apr 2021.

Therefore, to ensure underprivileged communities in Malaysia have better accessibility to nutritious food, EMIR Research has the following policy recommendations for the Social Welfare Department Malaysia (JKM), Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (MWFCD), Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industry (MAFI), Ministry of Health (MOH), Ministry of Education (MOE) and Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs (MDTCA) to consider:

1. Integrate food and nutrition-focused programmes with different transfer modalities such as in-kind, cash or vouchers into social protection systems. Women and children from low-income households, in particular, can use food vouchers or cash to buy food. It would ensure everyone has a basic income, giving them the ability to cover their fundamental spending and enjoy healthy food;

2. Design a targeted public food distribution system to ensure access to diverse, balanced and nutritious meals. It is especially applicable to the B40 who are the most vulnerable to food insecurity. To ease the aid delivery, the government should mark and include all the B40 families onto their map, especially those who are living in interior and squatter areas;

3. Ensure continuity of nutrition services, particularly the early detection of malnutrition and maternal nutrition programmes;

4. Include nutritious food in the food aid and reach those who need it the most through government or community-based programmes. Any donations, marketing and promotions of unhealthy food should not be pursued or accepted during this health crisis; and

5. Develop a data-driven food security monitoring system to follow up with those suffering from hunger and malnutrition. The data is critical to ensure the stimulus packages introduced in the country could reach the most vulnerable.

While it is laudable that the current administration is committed to tackling food security-related issues, the Malaysian government has to emphasise the right to food, ensuring underprivileged communities receive adequate access to fresh, nutritious and local food.

As the majority of the urban and rural poor have limited data connectivity or digital devices, the government perhaps could prepare the benefits of having nutritious food in the form of leaflets, in addition to information disseminated through newspapers and magazines. The relevant authorities could explain the importance of having balanced meals while distributing leaflets through house-to-house visits.

When the Malaysian government views access to safe and nutritious food as a human right, nutrition could be the central focus of social protection schemes. This would ensure the prioritisation of food accessibility among the most vulnerable communities while at the same time mitigating hunger pandemic in the country.

Amanda Yeo is Research Analyst at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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