Prevalence of ‘zero-food children’ in India

GS Paper I & III

News Excerpt:

A study published recently in the peer-reviewed JAMA Network Open journal found the prevalence of ‘zero-food children’ in India at 19.3%, drawing attention to extreme food deprivation among children.

Children aged 6-23 months who go without milk, solid, or semisolid food for a 24-hour period are ‘zero-food’.

Key highlights of the study:

  • With 19.3% ‘zero-food’ children, India was third highest globally after West African countries Guinea (21.8 per cent) and Mali (20.5 per cent)
    • Nigeria had the second-highest number of zero-food children (962,000), followed by Pakistan (849,000).
  • According to the report, the states of Uttar Pradesh (28.4%), Bihar (14.2%), Maharashtra (7.1%), Rajasthan (6.5%), and Madhya Pradesh (6%) account for nearly two-thirds of the zero-food children in India.
    • The problem of such extreme food deprivation is severe among children in the U.P. 
  • The prevalence of zero-food instances differed by region, with the highest rates in South Asia (15.7 per cent) and West and Central Africa (10.5 per cent).
    • Latin America and the Caribbean had the lowest prevalence and number of zero-food children, at 1.9 per cent, or 120,000 children.
    •  East Asia and the Pacific had the second-lowest prevalence, at 2.9 per cent.

Factors leading to such a large number of ‘zero food children’ in India:

  • With rapid industrialisation, nuclear families have grown in both urban and rural areas, so there is no one to invest the time and energy required to feed a child apart from the mother.
  • Women from underprivileged economic backgrounds work to sustain their families, resulting in their having insufficient time to complement breastfeeding for children above six months of age.
  • Lack of awareness about the nutritional needs of children and social misconceptions also contribute to the likely numbers.
  • Most of these women are unaware of the government’s flagship Poshan Abhiyan, which targets holistic development and adequate nutrition for children, pregnant women, and mothers and primarily focuses on children in the 0-6 age group.

Way forward:

  • According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the share of other food contributing to calorific requirements should be about 50% for children aged nine to 11 months (~300 out of 700 Kcal/day). 
    • In contrast, the share of breastmilk should be greater than that of other food for children aged six to eight months (400 out of 600 Kcal/day).
  • Breastfeeding alone cannot provide infants with the necessary nutrition after they are six months old
    • Introducing solid or semi-solid foods alongside breastfeeding is pivotal in early childhood growth and development.
  • High rates of children experiencing zero-food situations in certain countries indicate the necessity for focused interventions to enhance feeding practices for infants and young children.
  • The study pinpointed key areas where policies and programmes can intervene to enhance the nutritional well-being of children who experience zero-food situations. 
    • It is crucial to tackle the socioeconomic and environmental factors contributing to food insecurity.
  • Strategies should include enhancing access to nutritious foods, improving maternal and caregiver knowledge about appropriate feeding practices and strengthening health systems to ensure the availability of necessary resources and support. 
    • The design and implementation of interventions should be context-specific, accounting for cultural practices and local challenges.


Research has demonstrated the short and long-term benefits of adequate feeding, such as reduced risk of mortality, malnutrition, stunting, underweight and micronutrient deficiencies, and improved brain development, cognition and school readiness, laying the foundation for future learning and achievement.

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