China became an economic superpower in only a matter of decades. Forbes Magazine’s annual rich list reported that China has had 152 billionaires this past year. The once struggling nation has shown promising improvement. According to the World Bank, the number of impoverished people living in China dropped from 683 million in 1990 to 157 million in 2009. This improvement is a result of the rapid urbanization in China in recent years. Greater economic opportunity and government assistance is now available in cities. However, children in rural villages are stuck in a seemingly unbreakable cycle of poverty.
The children of rural China face a variety of challenges that are virtually nonexistent in the cities. Among one of the most glaring is the struggle against malnutrition. UNICEF estimates that there are 12.7 million stunted children in China; this life-long condition that results from severe malnutrition plagues children most during early childhood.
In addition to malnutrition, anemia takes a tremendous toll on rural Chinese children. Stanford University conducted a test on 1824 babies in China’s Shaanxi Province. Forty nine percent of the babies tested were anemic and 28 percent were near anemic. Furthermore, of all the babies tested, 40 percent displayed cognitive or motor problems.
Why are rates of anemia so high? Stanford reports that while the parents were generally willing to spend additional money on food for their children, they were uninformed on what type of nutritional value the food should have. Many micronutrients, such as iron, were missing, indicating that fresh fruits and vegetables were consumed infrequently. Additionally, further investigation revealed that mothers stopped breastfeeding after six months. From that point on, the child would typically eat rice porridge or soups.
Misinformed parents are often responsible for their children’s poor health. Parents often do not introduce solid food into children’s diets until they are 12 to 18 months old, though it is recommended that solid food make up half of a one-year-old’s diet. Many parents believe myths that babies cannot digest hard foods or that particular foods, like rice, are better for cognitive development.
Treating anemia and replenishing nutrients is actually quite easy. Stanford researchers state that simply taking iron supplements can counter anemia. To address the rampant malnutrition in China’s poor, rural provinces, UNICEF has begun to distribute a nutrition supplement called Ying Yang Bao. Ying Yang Bao is a small packet of powdered vitamins, minerals and proteins that can be mixed into solid foods like porridge.
Many rural Chinese families cannot afford to buy fresh fruits, vegetables and proteins like beef. Dairy products are also expensive and difficult to access. Often, noodles, porridge, rice and starches like potatoes constitute meals. Fortunately, the micronutrients in Ying Yang Bao are easily dissolved in porridges and soups.
UNICEF reports that, between 2008 and 2011, more than 30,000 rural children received Ying Yang Bao. After consumption, anemia levels were cut in half. A long-term solution to malnutrition is still in the works. While aid from UNICEF and other organizations is improving the health of rural children, education is a key issue to be addressed. Parents are misguided by myths and superstitions, which has led to the silent suffering on many children. A public education program has not been officially instituted, but would be another component of China’s long-term solution for malnutrition.
– Bridget Tobin