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Opinion

Prioritizing needs

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

One of the most famous psychological theories of motivation is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Frequently visualized as a pyramid with several tiers, the foundation is composed of what he called physiological needs. These are the basic physical needs that usually must be satisfied before our desires can be turned elsewhere, and include the basic physical needs such as air, water and food. While it was made for a specific purpose and its ordering has been contested by later researchers, Maslow’s Hierarchy has proved influential because it reflects certain truths about how we see our own needs. We know how hard it is to focus on anything else when we are hungry, how more advanced worries about our work and studies can fade into the background in the face of a more pressing desire for food and drink. Human beings need many things, but at the very foundation of these needs is the need to be given good food and drink.

Many are in grave danger of having their basic needs unmet.

The recent report on The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022 (SOFI) saw the number of people affected by hunger globally rising to as many as 828 million in 2021, an increase of about 46 million since 2020. The World Health Organization notes that, after remaining relatively unchanged since 2015, the proportion of people affected by hunger jumped in 2020 and continued to rise in 2021, to 9.8 percent of the world population; that around 2.3 billion people in the world (29.3 percent) were moderately or severely food insecure in 2021; that the gender gap in food insecurity continued to rise; that almost 3.1 billion people could not afford a healthy diet in 2020 and that an estimated 45 million children under the age of five were suffering from wasting, while 149 million children under the age of five had stunted growth and development due to a chronic lack of essential nutrients in their diets.

The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed greatly to the rise of hunger, and current events stand to make things worse: the ongoing war in Ukraine not only disrupts supply chains but directly involves two of the world’s biggest suppliers of staple foods and fertilizer. Prices of basic goods have risen everywhere.

Here in the Philippines, there was already an emergency in the realm of nutrition even before the pandemic. In 2017-2019, as many as 59 million Filipinos considered themselves food insecure, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In the latest SOFI, it was reported that the number of Filipinos that could not afford a healthy diet rose to 75.2 million, with 53.3 million Filipinos either severely (5.3 million) or moderately (48 million) food insecure. A Social Weather Station (SWS) survey also indicated that the number of Filipinos who experienced involuntary hunger at least once in the first quarter of the year increased to an estimated 3.1 million families.

Many of those unable to achieve proper nourishment are those who need it most – our children. Our Department of Science and Technology (DOST) noted last March that “1 in 5 Filipino infants and young children 0-23 months old are stunted.” There are even regions where stunting levels were at 40 percent or more of the population, an utter catastrophe. While the DOST has been implementing its Malnutrition Reduction Program for over ten years, there is still a long way to go, and the World Bank has previously reported that the undernutrition problem in the country has largely remained unchanged for years.

This is a situation that simply cannot be allowed to continue, and the time to make headway against poor nutrition is now. The World Bank a few weeks ago approved a $178.1-million loan to support the Philippines in rolling out nutrition projects which reduces stunting and – while the pandemic has had many negative effects – awareness of the importance of health and immunity are higher than ever before. Making sure that children, particularly the infants and the very young, receive proper nutrition can have long-term consequences when it comes to their health and their future quality of life.

There must be a concerted and wholistic drive, including both public and private entities, to combat malnutrition. More food processing facilities, more food subsidies, more institutionalized early feeding programs and more training for those tasked to implement them.

One effective way to improve early nutrition is to increase support for breastfeeding, and it is only appropriate to repeat this call for National Breastfeeding Awareness Month. As stated by the UNICEF and the WHO: “Breastfeeding is one of the most effective – and cost-effective – ways to save and improve the lives of children everywhere, yielding lifelong health benefits for infants and their mothers.” Breast milk, as one study puts it, “is the gold standard for protective nutrients fed to newborn infants.” In many ways, breastfeeding can serve as a baby’s first vaccine.

Yet the benefits to breastfeeding do not mean it is an easy solution. Contrary to what many still believe – usually those who have never breast fed a child – breastfeeding is a difficult and demanding endeavor, and support is necessary to enable a mother to follow through on her desire to breastfeed her baby. Mothers must be given the right information to prepare for both the potential physical problems (pain that may be caused by latching, biological features that may make feeding difficult) and the mental toll (mothers must be informed of just how often newborns feed, and the difficulties of cluster feedings). They must be given support at home from their partners and family, and support in their places of work – support that goes beyond the bare minimum. After all, an employer can comply with the letter of the law but still not create an environment conducive to breastfeeding. As I’ve mentioned before, we cannot ignore that for all that the law provides, there remains a certain stigma against breastfeeding that must be fought, not in the halls of Congress but in everyday life, in homes and offices, especially when the recommended duration for breastfeeding is being made longer in some countries.

Whatever challenges our country faces in the coming days, we must be clear about our priorities. And high on that list, right at the top, must be providing for the basic needs – and securing the future – of our children.

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