February 20, 2012
I think about food all the time. It's my passion; it's my profession. Yet for millions of people around the globe the thought of food is a matter of survival.
Every year, more than 2.5 million children globally die due to hunger and malnutrition. In fact, chronic malnutrition, or the lack of proper nutrition over time directly contributes to three times as many child deaths as food scarcity. Yet surprisingly, you don’t really hear about this hidden crisis through the morning news, Twitter or headlines of major newspapers.
The exciting news is that this crisis is solvable.
I saw that firsthand last week on a trip to Ethiopia, where nearly half of the children suffer from chronic malnutrition. I traveled there with Save the Children, just ahead of the global development organization’s release of a new report: “A Life Free From Hunger: Tackling Children Malnutrition.” And what struck me most is that we really can offer that better future to millions more children who today go without the nutrition their young bodies need to develop well and survive.
I witnessed several simple, proven solutions, including those offered by an amazing group of government health workers who received extra training from Save the Children. These women are really on the frontlines, educating mothers about the importance of incorporating healthy foods into their meal planning. I followed one of these women, Ngist, down dirt roads of a rural village lined with small huts not much bigger than a typical American kitchen. We first visited Sendeafe, a 45-year-old mother of two. Before, her family’s diet consisted only of sorghum and maize – and so her 3-year-old son became malnourished. Then Ngist previously suggested Sendeafe sell the sorghum and maize at the local market and use the money to buy healthier foods, like eggs and vegetables. Today, Sendafe’s sweet little boy is doing much better as a result.
Like me, and mothers across America, Sendeafe wants her kids to grow up healthy and strong so they may perform well in school, fight off illness and reach their full potential. Yet whether in Los Angeles or rural Ethiopia, it became clear that a mother’s ability to provide for her children is not always tied to income, but rather to education.
Dinka, 37, is another mom I met. As a shopkeeper, she could afford more than Sendeafe and others in her village. Even so, until recently Dinka never had the chance to learn the importance of proper nutrition. She used to feed her 1-year-old son only cow’s milk, and so her little boy wasn’t growing properly. With the help of Nigist, Dinka learned how to create a variety of porridge from onions, tomatoes and potatoes to ensure her family received the nutrition they needed to survive and thrive.
I met many mothers who didn’t know the benefits of solely breastfeeding their babies at first – both to protect against contaminated water, and to build their babies’ immune systems. One of these moms, Fikrt, brought her 4-month-old baby to a health post for vaccinations. While there, she also received counseling from a nurse on the important role exclusive breastfeeding plays in nourishing her child and how breastfeeding should be supplemented with healthy foods after the baby reaches six months of age.
Of course, resources are also a critical ingredient in the fight against child malnutrition.
At a USAID-funded urban garden program, I met moms who were each provided a plot of land to grow and harvest such healthy items as cabbage, onions and tomatoes for their family. If they have a surplus, they can sell it to earn extra money. Many of the mothers told me how they now realize how important it is to provide their family with healthy vegetables to supplement their traditional staple – the flat, spongy bread called injera- so their children may develop properly.
The trip was remarkably hopeful and I know with more support, more children can have better futures in Ethiopia and around the world. As founder of Chefs for Humanity, I ask that everyone who appreciates good food and good health to speak up for those children who can achieve it with our help.
Together, we can share the recipe for success and urge our world leaders to take action on behalf of the world’s children. After all, every child deserves a healthy start in life.