May 8, 2016 | By Roger Thurow

The Best Present on Mother's Day? Good Nutrition for All.

Credit: Anne Thurow

What might be the best Mother’s Day present ever?

The gift of good nutrition, for it would benefit moms and children everywhere.  Even better, it is a gift for all of us.

Anemia affects half a billion women of reproductive age worldwide, leading to maternal death and serious birth consequences for infants, including stillbirths, prematurity, and low birth weight. Every year, malnutrition contributes to nearly half of all deaths of children under age 5 (that’s a total of 3 million young lives lost); of those who survive, one in four are stunted.

That these medieval maladies have persisted into the second decade of the 21st Century is a shame on the global conscience. Now, the World Bank and other development agencies and foundations are increasing the urgency to reduce malnutrition with a package of priority investments. It has a hefty price tag: $2 billion a year above current annual nutrition spending.  But, really, it’s a great bargain.

Rather than look at the cost, consider the savings, as the World Bank has done. The additional annual investment of $2 billion in nutrition over the next 10 years could save 2.2 million lives and result in 50 million fewer stunted children – especially if the improved nutrition efforts are concentrated in the first 1,000 days, the time from when a woman becomes pregnant to her child’s second birthday. This is the time when the foundation for healthy physical growth is set, when the brain grows most expansively and rapidly, when the immune system is bolstered for life. Proper nutrition for mother and child with the essential minerals and vitamins is the fuel for all of this. Akin Adesina, the president of the African Development Bank, calls it investing in “grey matter infrastructure.” It is, he says, as important to a nation’s prosperity and stability as investments in other economic infrastructure, like roads, bridges, ports, and buildings.

And yet, in this period when the world benefits the most from good nutrition, we are spending the least; just 1% of global health budgets goes to nutrition, and very little of that in the first 1,000 days. Although the importance of good nutrition is everywhere in international development – it is the cornerstone for progress in education, health and labor productivity – it has been nowhere in development strategies. The interventions targeted for urgent scaling up in the World Bank-led priority package of investments include: vitamin A supplementation for children, micronutrient supplementation for pregnant women, iron and folic acid supplements for adolescent girls, staple food fortification, national breastfeeding promotion campaigns, promotion of good infant and young child nutrition and hygiene practices.

I saw the benefits of these investments while reporting my new book, The First 1,000 Days: A Crucial Time for Mothers and Children – And the World. It is clear that malnutrition in this critical time of development often results in stunting, both physically and cognitively, effectively sentencing the child to a lifetime of underachievement. The cost for the individual child is enormous: a diminished capacity to learn and earn and an increased likelihood of chronic disease and obesity as an adult. The cost is devastating for the family, the lost earnings and higher health care costs of a stunted child making the climb out of poverty that much more difficult. Countries and continents with 30% to 40% stunting rates lose significant chunks of their GDP, about 11% for both sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. The global toll adds up to trillions of dollars lost annually to lower productivity, higher health care costs, and reduced global economic activity.

But the greatest cost of malnutrition in the 1,000 days is immeasurable. A poem not written. A novel not imagined. A gadget not invented. A mystery not solved. A horizon not explored. An idea not formed. An innovation not nurtured. A cure not discovered. What might a child have contributed to the world if he or she hadn’t been stunted in the 1,000 days? A lost chance at greatness for one is a lost chance for all. A stunted child anywhere is a stunted child everywhere.

The gift of good nutrition benefits not just one mother or one child.  It benefits us all.


| By Roger Thurow

A Wondrous Journey

Cruising down I-80 in the summer is one of the most wondrous, and paradoxical, drives in the country.

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1,000 Days and Migrant Stress

The first 1,000 days of a child's life is a critical time for development, where nutrition--and stability--lay the foundation for a lifetime. 

| By Roger Thurow

Outrage and Inspire with Roger Thurow - Am I About to Lose My Second Child, Too?

The latest podcast in our ongoing series with Roger Thurow. Hear how even the best nutrition projects can be undermined by bad water, poor sanitation and hygiene, and lousy infrastructure.  From northern Uganda, we hear a mother’s agony when her healthy, robust child suddenly falls ill after a few sips of water…unclean water, it turned out.

Roger Thurow on SDG 2.2

Roger Thurow sat down with Farming First to talk about the individual and societal consequences of malnutrition. 




Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.


The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

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The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

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