Overcoming childhood malnutrition:
The Time to Act is Now
International donors and in particularly those making the largest humanitarian contributions to food assistance projects -- including the United States, Canada, the countries of the European Union, Japan, and Australia -- should provide the resources to allow the funding of adequate nutrition for infants and young children at risk of malnutrition.
Governments supplying humanitarian food aid to developing countries must stop providing substandard foods for infants and young children. The cereal-based fortified flours currently donated do not meet basic nutritional standards for infants and young children, a reality highlighted by the fact that none of these cereals are used in nutrition programs in their own countries.
This double standard must end.
There must be adequate resources and political will to provide infants and young children with the nutrient-rich foods they need to escape the burden of malnutrition.
The Heavy Burden of Malnutrition
Almost 200 million children under 5 years of age are affected by malnutrition, with 90 percent living in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. And at any moment, at least 20 million children suffer from the deadliest form of severe malnutrition. Malnutrition plays a huge role in child mortality because the immune systems of these children are less resistant to common childhood diseases. In fact, malnutrition contributes to at least one third of the eight million annual deaths of children under five of five.
The Critical Window of Opportunity
Most of the damage caused by malnutrition occurs in children before they reach their second birthday. This is the critical window of opportunity when the quality of a child's diet has a profound, sustained impact on his or her health, physical and mental development. Breast milk is the only food babies need for the first six months. After this time, breastfeeding alone is not sufficient and the types of foods introduced into the diet are of paramount importance. Diets that do not provide the right blend of energy including high-quality protein, essential fats, and carbohydrates as well as vitamins and minerals can impair growth and development, increase the risk of death from common childhood illness, or result in life-long health consequences. The fortified cereals currently distributed through food aid do not meet this minimal standard.
Tackle Childhood Malnutrition Head-On
Tested strategies to address malnutrition are effective and are showing promising results in many countries. Some, including Mexico, Thailand, and Brazil, have reduced early childhood malnutrition through direct nutrition programs that ensure infants and young children from even the poorest families have access to quality foods, such as milk and eggs. Through such programs, substantial progress has been made towards freeing children from the consequences that come with malnutrition at an early age. At the same time there is growing political will in Asian and African countries to replicate successful programs.
Unfortunately, most current food aid programs for developing countries rely almost exclusively on the fortified cereal blend of corn and soy that may relieve a young child’s hunger, but does not provide proper nourishment. International donors must end this double standard. They should only support programs that respect the minimal nutritional needs of infants and young children, and work with countries most affected by the crisis to put access to nutrient-rich foods at the center of their efforts to tackle childhood malnutrition.