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

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 »