Why is malnutrition in central India so high and so persistent despite rising incomes? In the state of Madhya Pradesh, 45% of children under the age of 5 are underweight, and richer children are just as likely to be stunted as poorer children.
High rates of malnutrition reflect diets largely composed of cereals at the expense of more nutritional foods including pulses (such as lentils and chickpeas), vegetables and fruit.
While the cereal-intensive diets of farm households are believed to reflect widespread wheat and rice cultivation, recent research by SCID India Program Director Anjini Kochar shows that the link between cropping choices and nutrition exists only because of households’ savings choices.
Faced with high and variable prices for pulses, households in this region primarily save in the form of stored wheat. This helps households maintain consumption even in times of high food prices. But this is not through delayed market sales of wheat. Government intervention keeps wheat prices relatively low and stable relative to other food items such as pulses, thereby eliminating the incentive to sell wheat to purchase other goods.
Instead, farming households substitute the consumption of stored wheat for higher-priced food items, essentially consuming their savings. “Edible savings” allow households to stave off hunger, but at the cost of poor nutrition.