March 11, 2011 | By Roger Thurow

Starved Bodies, Hungry Minds

Lutacho, Kenya

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.

What, I asked them, would they do with a bountiful yield of maize, if they are so blessed?

“I will sell my surplus and buy a great cow to give milk for my family,” answered Agnes.

“I will use it as food for my family and to pay for education,” said Esther.

Beatrice volunteered, “Feed my family, send them to school.”

“I want to pay school fees and have enough food for my family,” said Leonida.

These goals were identical to those articulated by dozens of other farmers in western Kenya I’ve spoken with over the past several weeks.  The two most common, almost unanimous, goals I heard are ending family hunger and providing education for the children.

As the answers came rushing forward in those fields below Mount Elgon near the Kenya-Uganda border, I thought they sounded familiar.  And they were.  Think back to almost precisely two years ago, when Barack Obama delivered his inaugural address.

“To the people of poor nations,” he said, “we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow, to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.”

Nourish starved bodies.  Feed hungry minds.

Feed my family.  Pay school fees.

They are the same priorities, whether poetically expressed by the president of the most powerful nation or humbly offered by a poor smallholder farmer in Africa.

The link between these expressions of ambition and hope is Feed the Future, the presidential initiative to reverse the international neglect of agriculture development that has evolved from those 30 words on Inauguration Day.  Feed the Future seeks to create the conditions for the world’s poor smallholder farmers, particularly in Africa, to be as productive as possible, to feed themselves and their communities and hopefully have surpluses to boost their incomes, which can mean better education for their children.  Poor smallholder farmers just like Agnes and Esther and Beatrice and Leonida.

Nourish starved bodies.  Feed hungry minds.

And not by handouts of free food or free custom-built schools or free donations of books.  Listen to the farmers; they want to provide these things themselves for their families, by making their farming profitable.  They want to feed their families themselves.  They want to be able to afford the school fees for their children, for primary and secondary school and college.

It’s in their own words.  Feed our families.  Educate our children.

Are those goals any different from what any American citizen wants, be they farmer or factory worker or computer scientists or professor or journalist?  Those are the basic elements of providing for your family, no matter who you are or where you live.

And yet, Feed the Future and other programs of the administration that seek to promote agriculture development are under threat by the budget cutters in Congress.  Members of Congress and all those in the electorate who want to whack all foreign spending should listen to the poor farmers of the world who would benefit from increased spending on agriculture development.  “Feed our families.  Educate our children.”

Can there be better goals, nobler aspirations, of American foreign aid?  And besides, there’s absolutely nothing foreign about those goals.


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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. 

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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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