The nationwide lockdown in India last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic caused disruptions in agricultural supply chains that negatively impacted the nutrition of women in the country, according to a study.
The research, published in the journal Economia Politica, shows that although food value chains and allied activities were exempted from the lockdown, women’s dietary diversity — the number of food groups consumed — declined during the period compared to 2019.
The researchers at Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition (TCI), New Delhi, found that the drop was due to decreased consumption of foods like meats, eggs, vegetables and fruits, which are rich in micronutrients that are crucial to good health and development.
”Women’s diets were lacking in diverse foods even before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has further exacerbated the situation,” said Soumya Gupta, a research economist at TCI who co-authored the study.
”Any policies addressing the impact of the pandemic on nutritional outcomes must do so through a gendered lens that reflects the specific, and often persistent, vulnerabilities faced by women,” Gupta added.
The nationwide lockdown was enforced to slow down the spread of COVID-19 on March 24, 2020. The lockdown was lifted on May 30, last year, though some restrictions remained in certain areas of the country.
The researchers, including TCI director Prabhu Pingali, Mathew Abraham, assistant director, and consultant Payal Seth, analyzed surveys of food expenditures, dietary diversity and other nutrition indicators at the national, state and district levels in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha.
They found that unequal burden on women was also caused in part due to the closure of Anganwadi centers during the lockdown.
The centers, which provide take-home rations and hot cooked meals to nursing and expecting mothers, are an important source of nutrition for women and children.
Data from 155 households surveyed showed 72 percent of eligible households lost access to aanganwadi services during the pandemic.
The study found that disruptions to agricultural supply chains subsequently led to price fluctuations, especially for non-staple foods.
Nearly 90 percent of survey respondents reported having less food, while 95 percent said they consumed fewer types of food.
The largest drop in food expenditures was for micronutrient-rich fresh and dried fruits, as well as animal products such as meat, fish, and eggs, according to the researchers.
Expenditures returned to pre-lockdown levels in June 2020 at the national and state levels but remained low at the district level, they said.
The study suggests that underdeveloped regions were disproportionately affected by access and availability constraints, the researchers said.
Surveys also suggest a decrease in the quantity and quality of nutritious foods consumed by women during the pandemic.
For example, some women said that during the lockdown they halved the amount of dal, or red lentils, that they prepared, or that they prepared thinner dals.
”The decline in women’s diet diversity combined with a likely decrease in quantities consumed points to a greater risk for micronutrient malnutrition as compared to before the pandemic,” Gupta said.
”Due to the spillover effects of maternal malnutrition, that risk poses a threat not only to women’s productivity and well-being but also that of their children,” she said.
Nutrition security declined across the board during the lockdown, but researchers found reason to believe that women’s nutrition was disproportionately impacted.
The number of women consuming vitamin A-rich fruits and vegetables dropped by 42 percent, they said.
A previous study by TCI showed that Indian women eat less diverse diets than their households.
Researchers explained that many factors have been associated with gender differences in food allocation across the world, including income, bargaining power, social status, interpersonal relationships, tastes, and preferences.
Uneven food allocation within households has also been associated with the role of women in different family systems, including women eating after all other members have eaten, they added.