October 12, 2012 | By Roger Thurow

The Nutrition Dialogues

The most difficult conversations were about the malnourished children.

“When you, as a parent, see your child not eating enough to be satisfied, you are hurt, but you are not in a position to control the situation,” Zipporah Biketi told me when we first met in western Kenya last year.  Her two-year-old son David was manifestly malnourished with a swollen belly, and he was plagued with a persistent cough from a weakened immune system.  His sisters Cynthia and Tabitha were very thin.

David’s middle name was Wanjala; Tabitha’s was Nanjala.  Those are the names (a male version and a female version) often given to children born during the annual hunger season known locally as the Wanjala – it is a time of profound deprivation, when the family has run out of food from the previous harvest and is still waiting for the next harvest to come in.  David and Tabitha seemed trapped in the time of their birth.

Leonida Wanyama, another farmer I profile in my new book The Last Hunger Season, wore a pained expression when talking about four-year-old Dorcas, her youngest child.  The toll of the hunger season fell most heavily on the littlest; Dorcas, Leonida worried, was quieter and sicker more often than she should be for her age.

From these women farmers, I learned that the deepest form of misery was to be a mother unable to silence the crying of a hungry child.

These conversations are painful, but they are so necessary as we move agricultural development and improved nutrition to the top of the international discussion.  These are the central topics of ONE’s Thrive campaign.  Producing more food and more nutritional food – they go hand in hand.

Over the course of last year, while reporting the book, I followed Zipporah’s progress.  In 2010, she had enough money only to plant one-quarter of an acre; her meager harvest was barely two 90-kilogram bags of corn.  It lasted only a couple of months; her Wanjala stretched on for nine or ten months.

In 2011, she became a member of the social enterprise organization One Acre Fund, which now works with more than 130,000 farmers in several African countries.  One Acre provides access to the essential elements of farming – seed, soil nutrients, field training and micro-financing to pay for it all – that had for so long been beyond the reach of small-holder farmers.  With these materials, Zipporah was able to plant a full acre of corn, and her harvest multiplied 10-fold, to 20 bags.  It was wealth beyond her imagination.

Inspired by the leap in production of her staple crop, she turned her attention to improving the nutrition of her family.  She was able to afford seeds and tiny amounts of fertilizer for a second planting season of diversified crops on her one acre: beans, peas, kale, sweet potatoes, peanuts.  By the end of the year, with the Wanjala defeated, little David’s cough was largely gone and his malnutrition was abating.  Zipporah’s family was moving from merely surviving to robustly thriving.

Over the past couple of weeks we’ve heard much talk about agricultural development and nutrition at the United Nations General Assembly and the Clinton Global Initiative.  This in itself is progress – though perhaps not as dramatic as the improvements on the farms of Western Kenya.  For so long, agriculture and nutrition were rarely heard in the top-level dialogues on international development.

“Food Security is now at the top of our national and foreign policy agendas, as well as that of so many other nations in the world, because we understand it is a humanitarian and moral imperative, but it also directly relates to global security and stability,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed at a UN event featuring the Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative, which has at its very core creating opportunities for farmers like Zipporah and Leonida.  She continued: “I’ve seen in my travels how increased investments in agriculture and nutrition are paying off in rising prosperity, healthier children, better markets, and stronger communities.”

The movement to grow more and better food is itself growing, presenting a great opportunity for whoever wins next month’s elections to keep expanding.  Now is not the time to slow down or retreat on the agriculture and nutrition front.  But to move full steam ahead.

Archive




| By Roger Thurow

Starved Bodies, Hungry Minds

The women farmers at the foot of the Lugulu Hills paused from the preparation of their fields for the planting season and looked forward to the harvest.

| By Roger Thurow

Extending the Reach

I returned from a day in the field with Kenyan smallholder farmers last week to find these words from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack as the Newsbrief’s Quote of the Week:

“As I travel around the world talking about American agriculture, the one thing that has struck me is how jealous the rest of the world is about extension, how they would love to have the capacity that we have in this country and often, unfortunately, take for granted, of the ability to reach out and gain very useful information and insights to improve productivity.”

Exactly, I thought.

| By Roger Thurow

Bringing Home the Seeds

It’s been Christmas in February this week for thousands of smallholder farmers in western Kenya.  Seeds and fertilizer for the imminent planting season arrived.

| By Roger Thurow

Reality Check

As the budget battles intensify, a reality check is in order: Slashing foreign aid targeted for boosting development in poor countries will hardly make a dent in the deficit.  The savings will be negligible, but the consequences would be huge.


| By Roger Thurow

Writing on the Wall

The writing on the wall, foretelling the turmoil that has roiled North Africa and the Middle East in recent weeks, appeared during the food crisis of 2008.  It was then that staple food shortages and soaring prices sent protesters into the streets in dozens of countries in the developing world.

| By Roger Thurow

We Do Big Things

For those of us who were listening to the President’s State of the Union address this week, listening for a reference to the fight against hunger through agriculture development, we heard this near the end of the speech:

| By Roger Thurow

African Paradox

Once again, the great paradox of Africa emerges: hunger in one part of a country, food surplus in another.

| By Roger Thurow

The Task Ahead for the 112th Congress

As 2011 dawns, the United States government is poised to lead the greatest assault on global hunger through agriculture development since the Green Revolution half a century ago.  

| By Roger Thurow

Bowling against Hunger

The college football bowl season, which begins this weekend, celebrates food and eating almost as much as it celebrates gridiron excellence.  Just consider how many of this season’s bowls – Bowls!  The very word comes straight from the kitchen — are sponsored by food companies or named after food:


| By Roger Thurow

Food Is the Foundation

This week in Cancun, international negotiators have been consumed with climate change.  And on Dec. 1, all around the world, red ribbons were out in force for World AIDS Day.

Multimedia

Videos


 


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.

» Learn more.
» Order your copy of the book.

Books

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.

Learn more »

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?

Learn more »

EnoughEnough

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.

Learn more »