expert opinion

Poverty Reduces Children’s Educational Opportunities – And Can Make Them Sick

June 1, 2011

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Prof. Dr. med. Hans Konrad Biesalski, speaker of the Expert Committee on Nutrition Information at the University of Hohenheim in Germany.

“At first glance all seems well in Germany – including children’s meals. Representatives of the National Nutrition Survey (Nationale Verzehrsstudie II) declare that there are no vitamin deficiencies in after the age of 14 in Germany. If by this they mean severe deficiency conditions with the classic symptoms, then they are right. However, this frankly ignores that according to the results of the same survey a large part of the population does not consume the recommended amounts of some important nutrients – including folic acid, vitamin D, calcium, vitamin E and others.

It is of little use to reiterate monotonously, as some do, that everyone can eat healthily. Yes, everyone can – if they have sufficient financial resources and enough knowledge about what constitutes a healthy diet. In poor families, however, financial pressures force people to choose inexpensive foods with little variety. Almost automatically this means foods with a high energy content – above all a high fat content – that are otherwise of little value from a nutritional point of view. Even in discount food stores, it is necessary to spend at least five euros per day per child to put together a diet that has any claim at all to be ‘healthy’, let alone organic. The Hartz IV standard benefit rates allow 2.62 euros per day for children aged 1 to 5 years, and 3.22 euros for children aged 6 to 13 – barely half the minimum requirement.

The consequence: a form of social selection that denies physical fitness, and hence the foundation for a good education and professional success, to the poor from childhood. The inadequate supply of vitamins weakens children’s immune systems and makes those affected vulnerable to illness and consequent absence from school. Children from poor families are twice as often sick and overweight – another result gleaned from German surveys. In the long term a lack of the micronutrients listed encourages the development of chronic diseases: arteriosclerosis, diabetes and others. The 2.5 million children who eat badly for reasons of poverty will go on to become adults who are twice as likely to develop hypertension and diabetes, as was recently impressively demonstrated by studies from Sweden and the USA.

It is society’s duty to prevent these diseases before the children grow up: by the time they are adults it is too late. One solution is to introduce healthy nutrition to schools and nursery schools, as demanded by the Bioethics Forum of the German Ethics Council in 2007. These should be free of charge – ideally for all children, as in Scandinavia, for example, but at least for children from low-income families. It is of little use to emphasize the possibilities of a healthy diet if those who are in greatest need of such a diet cannot access it for economic reasons.”

Press Release by the University of Hohenheim, Germany. May 2011.