Urban poor communities have cut their protein intake due to the ongoing economic crisis stemming from the Russia-Ukraine war as they can hardly manage basic food costs for their families threatening the overall nutrition status of the country.
Shilpi (30), who lives in the capital's Korail slum with her twin daughters and day-labourer husband, said that they get to eat fish once or twice a week – mostly Pangas, which is relatively low cost.
"We cannot afford meat, milk or eggs," she said.
Shahida (42), another Korail slum dweller, said her husband is a rickshaw-puller and their food menu is limited to rice, mashed potato and pulses.
"Fish or meat are out of question," she said.
Monthly earnings of both the families range between Tk8,000-Tk10,000, which has made making ends meet even harder amid inflation.
This situation, experts say, is pushing Bangladesh off track in its effort to attain the Sustainable Development Goals-2 (SDG-2), which stresses on ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition as well as promoting sustainable agriculture.
"Surely the country is going in the opposite direction in nutrition-related SDGs," Hossain Zillur Rahman, executive chairman of Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC), told The Business Standard.
The economic crisis, triggered by the Covid pandemic, further deepened after the Russia-Ukraine war and in this situation the lack of good governance is hurting people's access to food, he observed.
"The government is failing to control market manipulation," said Hossain Zillur Rahman.
"It is unfortunate that the government has hesitated to increase the social safety net for the urban poor. They should change their policy mindset as urban poverty is now a reality," he added.
The "Urban Socio-Economic Assessment Survey", conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) in 2019, found that the open market sale (OMS) coverage is insignificant in the urban areas compared to that of the rural areas as only 1% of the poor people are covered by the programme.
The report recommended increased interventions like OMS in the urban areas to ensure food security. The recent move to distribute family cards to provide essential items through the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh at a fair price is a result of that recommendation.
Experts say, one of the major causes of undernutrition is diseases and inadequate dietary intake, which means both in quantity and quality. Disadvantaged people living in urban areas have been hit hard by the ongoing economic crises and unusual food inflation, limiting their ability to afford animal-source foods which contain vitamin A, B12, riboflavin, calcium, iron and zinc as well as higher amounts of protein and fat compared to plant food sources.
Policy gap in bringing these people under social safety net programmes is largely to blame, say many experts.
Although 22 ministries are working to implement the Second National Plan of Action for Nutrition (NPAN2) 2016-2025, the nutrition situation is gradually worsening as the Bangladeshi consumers pay comparatively higher commodity prices due to lack of governance, tax policy, market distortion, price manipulation, syndication and overall macroeconomic instability.
A report titled "Public Expenditure Review on Nutrition '', published on the budget allocation in the FY2016-17, found the government spent Tk23,210 crore for nutrition-related activities which is 1% of the GDP and 9% of the budget.
The report recommended that an easy and institutional framework should be established under the Bangladesh National Nutrition Council to regularly track and analyse the investment in the nutrition sector both by the public and private sector.
Alamgir Hossen, focal point officer, SDG Cell of BBS said food insecurity is obvious if the prices go up and the long-term effect of this is malnutrition.
The malnutrition map of BBS (2019) shows that the rate is higher in the peripheral thanas of Dhaka as a section of the slum dwellers shift towards the low-cost outskirt areas.
Professor Mohammad Jahangir Alam, Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology Department at Bangladesh Agricultural University, told TBS that food security means food is available and consumers have access to the market and the ability to buy the food.
He suggested that the vulnerable communities should be brought under the social safety net and the market should be monitored strictly to prevent price manipulation.
Citing an example, he said that in the near past, rice was available, and at the same time, it became expensive in the market. Even rice imports failed to reduce the retail price.