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  • Writer's pictureZhiyao Xiao

Malnutrition Among Rural China's Children

Oink! A pig squeals and scurries across the crowded pen. Into it, a man throws scraps of vegetables. These pigs are fed and nurtured well in order to provide meat for the livestock farmer.

Livestock farmers feed their animals excessively to compete in high market prices. Because China has encountered previous agricultural setbacks, a lot of farmers have turned to meat packaging to make ends meet. However, some downsides of livestock farming are that animals consume excessive amounts of food — which takes form as nutrient deficient diets in

their families.

At this rate, China is feeding their pigs better than they’re feeding their children. UNICEF reports 19.6% of Chinese children develop anemia. This only includes those who were tested, which leaves many rural children’s anemia status unaccounted for. Anemia is a condition where there are not enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to your body. Dangers of anemia include fainting, fatigue, irregular heartbeat, and weakness in physical and mental health. As children are typically energetic, anemia-infected children are exhausted and weak. Anemia is typically chronic when it develops in childhood and has a worrying trend among rural Chinese children. It can become life-threatening when there is not enough oxygen to survive, or a malformation of the red blood cell occurs.

Most sources of anemia are genetic, (e.g. sickle cell anemia) and other forms that develop are often temporary until their diet balances. But anemia isn’t the only concern. Food is important for a child’s children for brain and body development. The World Health Organization found that most parents do not have enough time to read or teach their children. This disengagement also furthers their cognitive decline. Most rural diets compensate vegetables for rice and meager side dishes. Vegetables help stimulate organ growth and maintenance which these children lack. Occasionally, they have dishes of meat or fish, which do not meet daily guidance for protein. Protein is important for muscle and brain development, and a lack thereof often leads to organ failure later in life and high body fat percentage. In China’s rural areas, milk is often rare and therefore a deficiency of calcium can lead to iron deficiency anemia and weak skeletal structure. These children also are at risk for developing arthritis as early as 30s. Most rural diets include rice, and although rice is filling, there is heavy reliance on simple carbohydrates that lack nutrients and lead to obesity.

Additionally, if children are left behind, sometimes they are limited in their ability to get food. They prefer marketed snacks as opposed to nutritious foods and vegetables—a cheaper and more tasty alternative. Of course, these foods are packed with chemicals and preservatives that can also lead to developmental problems.

Stanford REAP’s (Rural Education Action Program) director Scott Rozelle surveys 1,800 babies in Shaanxi province to find out how many children were malnourished. Shanxi’s key industry is pig farming, which has been successful. However, Rozelle’s research reveals that "49 percent of the children in the survey had anemia, an additional 28 percent were "near-anemic" and 40 percent showed significant cognitive or motor delays. These rates exceed the global average for children and show widespread deficiencies in child nutrition in the region.” (REAP) If half our children are becoming anemic and malnourished, our society is experiencing a big problem.

Rozelle went one step further and surveyed the farmers. 70% of livestock farmers believed that the pigs should always receive nutrients. However, less than 20% of those same farmers believe that the same applied to baby nutrition. REAP provided resources and supplements to these malnourished children. Even with their efforts, cognitive development remains stunted, although the anemia rates have slowly fallen.

Regardless of geography, rural Chinese children remain somewhat malnourished compared to most developed nations. Parents do their best to raise them, and most will risk the financial burden if it gives their kids what they want. However, the problem remains that they are relatively uneducated about what their kids need to live a healthy life. Anemia-infected children look healthy, and some are even overweight, so it is hard to understand that they are experiencing deficiencies. Living in rural areas also limits medical clinics and centers that can test blood, which hides away the anemia problem that Chinese kids suffer. To increase this awareness, we need to feed our children diets high in iron, protein, and vegetables. Replace the sodium heavy store-bought foods with natural vegetables, fruits, and lean meats. If we live more like our pigs, our children will be healthier, happier, and smarter.

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