In 2011, 44 percent of Ethiopia’s children under the age of five suffered from chronic malnutrition. Reducing that number is important not only for children’s current health and well-being but also for their future health and economic productivity as adults. Thus, improving childhood nutrition by expanding children’s diets to include more nutrient-dense foods like legumes and fruits and vegetables has become an important goal for many policymakers.
A new article in Agricultural Economics looks at how households’ own agricultural production can influence children’s diets in rural Ethiopia. Specifically, the authors examine whether household production of a more diverse array of food products leads to more diverse, and more nutritious, diets for pre-school-aged children; in addition, they explore how the extent of market access affects this relationship between household production and children’s diets.
Spanning June and July 2013, the dataset covers 7,011 households in five regions in Ethiopia; it includes 80 different food products. Overall, 3,488 children ages 6 months to 5 years are covered in the sample; while the authors point out that these data are not nationally or regionally representative, the diets of the children in the sample are comparable to diets of children observed in the nationally and regionally representative 2011 Ethiopian Demographic and Health Survey (DHS).
Children’s dietary diversity was scored based on World Health Organization recommendations for infant and young child feeding practices. Mothers were asked a series of yes or no questions regarding the foods consumed by their children under the age of five; this survey was conducted in a single visit to each household. Food products were grouped into the following categories: grains, roots and tubers (e.g., barley, enset, maize, teff, and wheat); legumes and nuts; dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese); flesh foods (meat, poultry and fish products); eggs; vitamin A-rich fruits and vegetables; and other fruits and vegetables. The scoring system yielded a count ranging in value from zero to seven, taking into particular consideration important nutrients like vitamin A and calcium.
The authors do note a couple of limitations. First, the surveys do not account seasonality in children’s diets since the data was collected in one visit. Second, the surveys did not collect information regarding the quantities of different foods consumed by each child.
Overall, the study found that diets are extremely monotonous at all ages; from ages six months to 12 months, most children consume only one food group, and that number rises to only three food groups after age 24 months. Fifty-four percent of the surveyed children consume a staple grain, root, or tuber, one-third consume a legume or nut product, and just over 20 percent consume dairy products or vitamin A-rich fruits and vegetables. Virtually none of the surveyed children consume meat, fish, poultry, or eggs. These numbers do not change based on the child’s gender, but the authors did find regional differences, particularly in the consumption of legumes, dairy products, and vitamin A-rich fruits and vegetables.
Households’ agricultural production data, including both crops and livestock, were mapped to the seven study food groups. The survey finds that nearly all of the households in these regions produce staple foods and more than one-third produce legumes and nuts. Approximately 24 percent produce dairy products, while 22 percent produce meat. The production of the other food groups (eggs; vitamin A-rich fruits and vegetables; and other fruits and vegetables) ranges from between 8 percent and 15 percent. The authors’ analysis does find some correlation between children’s food consumption and household production. For example, in the regions in which dairy production is the highest, children’s consumption of dairy products is also highest.
Finally, a household-level food consumption expenditure survey was conducted; this survey found that for an average household in the sample, 50 percent of food consumption came from own production, 44 percent came from food purchases, and 6 percent came from food aid or gifts. In terms of market access, the mean distance to the closest food market was 10.9 kilometers; households located closer to food markets were found to consume less of their own production and more purchased food.
After controlling for a variety of factors other than own production that could impact children’s diets, (including children’s gender and age; households’ average education and income level; and access to markets and food prices), the study finds that children’s diets depend strongly on households’ food production choices. The relationship between children’s nutritional status and the diversity of households’ food production is especially strong for households with less access to food markets, since these households are less able to purchase food products that differ from the ones they produce. For households located closer to markets, and thus with more market access, however, the relationship between own production and children’s nutrition is weaker.
The authors note that suggesting that all rural households should produce a more diverse set of food products is not realistic, however. First, agro-climatic conditions prevent many households from diversifying their production. Second, specializing in specific food products can provide households comparative advantages that benefit their incomes and overall wellbeing; reducing such specialization in favor of diversity could result in households losing those benefits. Finally, the study shows that market access can act as a substitute for households’ production diversity. Thus, the authors suggest that interventions that increase households’ productivity (and thus incomes) and that improve market integration in remote rural areas (thus improving market access) can be more effective in improving the diets of young children. These interventions should also be combined with diversification of production at the regional and national levels to ensure that a range of nutritious food products is available in markets, as well as with behavior-change initiatives designed to better educate caregivers about proper child feeding practices.
By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI
 Central Statistical Agency, ICF International. (2012a). Ethiopia Demographic and Health Survey 2011. Central Statistical Agency and ICF International, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Calverton, Maryland, USA.