Anti-hunger organizations including the World Food Programme (WFP) are approaching food assistance with a health perspective—a strategy that is long overdue in the field of food aid, according to Martin Bloem, Chief of WFP’s nutrition and HIV unit.
“I’ve worked in this field for 30 years, but it’s only now that policy makers are finally recognizing that nutrition is important,” said Bloem, who is also a trained medical doctor. “Nutrition is related to so many issues—resistance to disease, equity, intellectual development, economic development. I believe that people have a right to nutrients, beyond just the right to food.”
Food aid can save lives during emergencies, but the majority of global food aid does not contain enough protein and micronutrients to prevent childhood stunting, a condition that causes irreversible damage to children’s minds and bodies.
“If you are a child who is stunted, you are deprived from equal opportunities for the rest of your life,” said Bloem. “You not only have an increased risk of mortality from all diseases, but you also have an increased risk of not having the job you want, of having a low IQ—you don’t have the same brain development or physical capacity.”
Stunting can be prevented if children are properly nourished between conception and 2 years of age, and with full-nourishment, they experience health and economic benefits for life. The International Food Policy Research Institute reported that children who were well-nourished before age 2 earned significantly higher wages as adults—a 46% increase on average. Studies have even shown that children who are given the right nutritional start are less likely to become obese or diabetic.
According to Bloem, a substantive percentage of all stunted children are already overweight because they are not eating the right food. This trend is part of a global health crisis of nutrient-related diseases like diabetes and heart disease that are projected to have devastating ramifications for societies and economies.
“Consider the countries in developmental transition like India or Indonesia, which have levels of stunting at 40%,” said Bloem. “You can imagine the health and productivity costs on society that will emerge in the next 20 years. This has enormous implications for poverty reduction.”
To combat childhood stunting, WFP has a multi-pronged approach that includes improving the quality and the diversity of its food products, providing the right mix of fortified food to nourish mothers, and supplementing home diets with micronutrient powders.
There has been tension among development programs about micronutrient supplementation. The FAO strongly advocates food-based approaches, arguing that supplementation, while necessary for high-risk groups, “simply cannot provide the overall long-term economic benefits of economy and sustainability that food-based approaches can deliver.”
For Bloem, the two approaches are not necessarily at odds: “Medium and long-term solutions are essential, and we should optimize the right to food by focusing on agricultural diversity. But with this issue, we should not be ideological. Micronutrient powders have been a cost-effective solution in the areas where we work.”
The WFP’s approach is both an emergency intervention and a long-term investment: “Investing in proper nutrition now, which costs about $200 per child for the first 2 years, will save lives and prevent many of the much more expensive costs later in life,” said Bloem.
An increasing number of non-government organizations share Bloem’s perspective and are campaigning to place nutrition on the global development agenda. A recent report released by UNICEF calls for a scaling up of global efforts to combat childhood stunting. “These programmes are working,” states the report. “But we must still reach millions of mothers and their children, especially those in the hardest to reach areas.”
The 1,000 Dayspartnership, supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is also spotlighting the multiple benefits of early childhood nutrition solutions. According to 1,000 Days, “Evidence shows that the right nutrition during the 1,000 day window can save more than one million lives each year…[and] increase a country’s GDP by at least 2-3 percent annually.”
Other organizations mobilizing action around this issue include Ashoka, the world’s largest network of social entrepreneurs, which has launched Nutrients for All, a movement to encourage leading social entrepreneurs and innovators to design direct nutrient interventions at each stage of the agricultural and food value chains.
“I’m excited that Ashoka is using the word, ‘nutrients,’ to talk about health, hunger, and development,” said Bloem. “We need to deliver a strong message that nutrients are essential for people to lead healthy and productive lives. Nutrients are a human right.”