Today's Children, Tomorrow's Economy

Children at Risk

©Eric Miller
A young boy waits for the first meal of the day, while the rest of the residents of the informal settlements where he lives queue for breakfast.
And so it is no stretch to say that the future well-being of our economies rests on the macro-nutrients and micro-nutrients that we feed our children – because these children’s brains will be the working muscles of tomorrow’s economy. In 2005, the South African National Food Consumption Survey found that, in general, our children were getting less than half the recommended calories – the very basic energy – as well as the key micro-nutrients (calcium, iron, zinc, selenium, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin C, vitamin E, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid and vitamin B6).

The survey found that 60% of South African children were short of vitamin A. When it comes to iron levels – bearing in mind that the concentration of iron-rich proteins in the blood helps transport oxygen – a third of all South African children are anaemic, while the iron levels of one in seven children are ‘poor’. Low iron levels are linked to ‘deficits in cognitive function’, including lower performance in cognitive, motor and psycho-educational tests, according to Professor Sally Grantham-McGregor, which can result in lower IQ and ‘softer’ neurological signs.

Just under half of South African children are short on zinc (45%), leaving them at risk of suppressed immune systems and vulnerable to picking up diseases that cause diarrhoea or respiratory illness. It is also linked to slowed growth and development right up to adolescence, and ‘impaired mental health’, according to the National Food Consumption Survey. Shortness in height is a sure sign of zinc deficiency.

Avoiding Neurodevelopmental Disorders

Folic acid – a vitamin B found in leafy greens – is critical in the healthy development of a foetus’s spine and brain. In fact, women need to get plenty of folate well before conception and into the first weeks of pregnancy in order to avoid the kinds of neuro-developmental disorders that result in the brain and spine not completing their development fully, causing disabilities such as spina bifida. Thankfully, folate levels appear to be normal across the country. This might be due to efforts to fortify staple foods such as maize meal and wheat flour with folic acid.

Fortification of foods might also explain why iodine deficiency has been all but wiped out in South Africa. A shortage of this micro-nutrient has also been linked to poor cognitive development and school achievement when in short supply in a child’s diet, according to Grantham-McGregor. What happens in those first 1 000 days of a child’s life is key to someone fulfilling his or her true potential as a smart, well-educated, fit, contributing adult.

Without the right kinds of foods by the time they reach 24 months, the critical two-year mark, children could ‘suffer irreversible damage into their adult life and to the subsequent generations’, The Lancet reiterates. This thinking has produced an entire advocacy movement based on this golden number, the 1 000 days in which to sow a generation of future achievers simply by getting them the right kinds of food before they turn two.

By Leonie Joubert