With a third of its children stunted, India’s malnutrition burden is widely acknowledged to be a major public policy challenge. The lack of toilets—which contributes to the spread of diseases, the low social status of women—who receive less nutrition than men, and poverty—which limits food intake and child care, are all known to have contributed to this problem.
A new World Bank working paper by Felipe Dizon of the World Bank and Anna Herforth, an independent consultant, highlights another important risk factor: the rising prices of nutritious food items in the country. Dizon and Herforth show that the price of nutritional food items in India and three other South Asian countries (Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Afghanistan) has been increasing at a faster rate than the price of a typical food basket, with the gap widening over the years.
Dizon and Herforth use two methods to estimate the cost of nutritious food items. The first method relies on calculating the cost of a recommended diet (CoRD) to estimate the cost of meeting food-based dietary guidelines using food prices and national dietary guidelines.
The second measure, the nutritious food price index (NPI) tracks changes in the price of nutritious foods by reweighting the standard food basket of the consumer price index (CPI) using weights that reflect the nutrition value of food items, as opposed to ones that reflect spending on food items. They authors show that between January 2014 and August 2017, the price of nutritious food items (such as vegetables, fruits, seafood, and meat products) have increased the most in India, while less nutritious items (such as cereals, sugars, oils and fats) have risen the least.
The spikes in the nutritious food price index are also far sharper than the spikes in the standard food consumer price index , their analysis shows.
Price of vegetables are particularly volatile because of seasonal and regional fluctuations in production. Given that vegetables are perishable and difficult to transport, inter-regional price differences tend to be higher in case of vegetables.
The authors argue that food policy in most South Asian countries may be focussing too much on calories and cereals and too little on nutrient-rich food items such as fruits and vegetables.
ALSO READ | The Cost of Nutritious Food in South Asia
They suggest that policymakers should ensure nutrient-dense foods remain affordable throughout the year but especially during price spikes in certain seasons and regions.
The metrics used by the authors such as the nutrition price index can be easily computed using official statistics, and can be an effective way to track nutritional risks over time and across regions.