May 31, 2016

Guest Commentary – Crazy Idea to Change the World: What If We Gave Kids a Good Start in Life?


 


This piece originally appeared on Grist

By Nathanael Johnson, Food Writer, Grist


Why do some countries remain poor, despite the best efforts of governments and development experts?

“It’s because their children are getting off to a lousy start,” says Roger Thurow, a journalist and senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. I spoke with Thurow about his new book, The First 1,000 Days, which makes the case that improving early childhood nutrition is the missing key to prosperity. It’s a simple idea with big promise for the poor and for the planet.

In a recent interview, we talked about how a shaky nutritional foundation is not only bad for children, but bad for everyone, and ruinous for the environment. Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q. What are the 1,000 days, and why do they matter?
 


A. The 1,000 days are the time from when a woman becomes pregnant to the second birthday of the child. It’s the time where the foundation is laid for strong physical growth, for development of the brain, and for development of the immune system. The key to all that is good nutrition.

So when you ask the broader question: Why do some places remain poor? It’s because their children are getting off to a lousy start. There’s this stunting and underachievement that rolls through time and across economies. Ending stunting has always been the right thing to do morally. But it’s also the smart thing to do because this is really taking a toll on the global economy.

Q. At Grist we often talk about fighting poverty and suffering as an integral part of fighting climate change, but that’s not an obvious connection for everyone. Do you see that connection with your work?
 


A. I do. Increased extreme weather occurrences have tremendous impact on harvests. There’s a very strong connection between climate and the ability of small farmers to feed their families. And if farmers can’t feed their families their only option is often to expand their farmland by cutting down trees and plowing up land. Poverty exacts a real toll on the environment.


Q. When you looked at programs focusing on the first 1,000 days, what evidence did you see that they were working?
 


A. In Guatemala, this mom Maria Estella — she’s very worried about her first child Yesica because she’s smaller and she was behind some of the other kids in walking and talking. So when she got pregnant again she joined a nutrition class at a clinic. She gave birth to a very robust boy Jorge, and by the time he turned 2, he was basically the same size as his sister, who was coming up on 4. And the mom says he seems calmer, more curious, and further ahead developmentally.
So it doesn’t need to be from one generation to the next that these changes take place. You can do it between siblings in one family.

Q. When Americans think of malnourished children, we generally think of other countries, but of course it also happens here. What did this look like in Chicago?
 


A. It’s the same as the other countries I visited: Environmental conditions reinforce poverty, and it means kids are getting a lousy start in life. One of the reasons I settled on Chicago as an example is that I heard Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speak about food deserts. He said, “I know there’s a nutritional aspect, but when I look at food deserts I also see them as opportunity deserts, job deserts, education deserts, health deserts, infrastructure deserts.”

Just like in other countries, there are all these socio-economic barriers to getting good nutrition, and that prevents good education, which affects the kids’ ability to make money and be successful. In Chicago one year, 20 to 25 percent of children entering kindergarten were overweight or obese. And that’s the manifestation of this malnourishment that’s happening in the 1,000 days.


Q. How are people putting the 1,000-days focus into practice?
 


A. In the past, there’s been very low investment in nutrition. Now there’s a new awareness among economists and finance people that, wow, this really has an impact on the prosperity of families, and countries, and the world, and on stability and security.

On the development side, a couple years ago USAID said that nutrition needs to be a central focus, because no matter what we are doing in health, or education, or infrastructure, that’s all dependent on nutrition. And the World Bank just a couple of weeks ago launched a new program for investing in nutrition. So we’re coming out of the days of ignoring nutrition at the start of life. Hopefully early childhood nutrition stays in the forefront.

 

Archive

| By Roger Thurow

Impatience

Bill Gates calls himself an “impatient optimist.”

Would that we all shared his optimism and, especially, his impatience.

| By Roger Thurow

Marching Forth

They are marching again in Alabama with no less passion than the civil rights campaigners of the 1960s.

| By Roger Thurow

Going Together

In the new initiative to end hunger through agriculture development, an old African proverb is lighting the way: If you want to go fast, go it alone.  If you want to go far, go together.

| By Roger Thurow

Beyond the Emergency

Before the calamitous earthquake, Haiti was in the news for another tremor: the global food crisis of 2008.

| By Roger Thurow

Unity of Purpose

Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, stands as a monument to how one determined individual can make a huge difference in the fight against hunger.  But he often stressed that it took an army of individuals, with a unity of purpose, to win the war.

| By Roger Thurow

Can't Lead Abroad While Losing at Home

In 2003, while reporting in the famine fields of Africa, I met an American aid worker who suggested I expand my research on global hunger: “You should look into hunger in America, too,” she suggested.

| By Roger Thurow

A Hunger Czar Talks… and Talks

His travels may take him to Ethiopia, Malawi, Lesotho or to the far corners of Ireland.  His meetings may be with heads of state, parliamentarians, budgetary bean counters or with farmers and school children.  His missions may range from promoting new conservation tilling techniques to considering the role of breast pumps in improving infant nutrition in Africa.

| By Roger Thurow

From Words to Action: A Rwandan Beginning

They were listening in the hills of Rwanda a year ago when a new American president, this one with African lineage, took the oath of office.  Minutes into his inaugural address, Barack Obama stirred their hopes:

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

| By Roger Thurow

Why Not Hunger?

Given the carnage of the first decade of the 21st Century, the humanitarian front would seem an unlikely source for a beacon of light.  But here it is, shining through the gloom:

Where grassroots clamor is raised, wonders follow.

1,000 Days Project

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.


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?


Enough

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.


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 »