Empty Calories and Promises

The US Standard and A Double Standard
The access to nutritious, enriching foods that the U.S. government provides to young American children is a stark contrast to the nutritionally devoid blend of fortified flour sent to malnourished children outside the country.

Press Release: Child Mortality Observed 50% Lower With Better Food

The following op-ed by Dr. Susan Shepherd, MSF child nutrition adviser, was printed in the Kansas City Star today in light of the 2011 International Food Aid & Development Conference happening this week in Kansas City.

Finding the right recipe of diet and exercise to keep children healthy is never easy for a nation. Within a generation, we have gone from “Hunger in America,” the landmark 1968 report on the millions of American children suffering from severe malnutrition, to “Let’s Move,” the new initiative to improve nutrition and reduce childhood obesity.

One consistent bright spot, however, has been the Women, Infants and Children’s program (WIC) that emerged in the early 1970s. Through WIC, low-income families are given the means to improve children’s and pregnant or breastfeeding mothers’ diets. In the first two years of life, children are growing and learning at breakneck speed — and there’s a crucial 18-month window to make a lifelong difference. From 6 months onward, children need a range of nutritious foods that provide the right mix of proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals essential to health, growth and development. WIC assures access to these costly, healthy foods: milk, eggs, baby foods, fortified cereals, fresh fruits and vegetables.

This program has helped wipe out childhood malnutrition in America.

It’s time the U.S. government applied the same nutrition standards to the foods it sends overseas to children in need. In Kansas City this week, U.S. and international policymakers, health care professionals, aid practitioners and advocates will discuss ways to improve the quality of the foods provided to the developing world.

Every year the U.S. sends more than 100,000 tons of fortified corn-soy bean flour to nutrition programs, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. These flours, grown on American farms and processed in American factories, are used as porridge to feed malnourished children. Tragically, they do not meet the nutritional requirements of these children.

Fortified corn-soy porridge is seen as emergency food aid, as if it’s intended just to tide children over for a short time until things improve. But a recent Government Accountability Office report reveals that more than half of this food actually goes to some countries year after year like an international WIC program. A young child in Ethiopia has the same nutritional needs as a child in Kansas City, and they need more than corn and soy beans, they need animal-sourced foods like milk.

Unfortunately, new recommendations in a USAID-commissioned Food Aid Quality Review still fall short of what young children need. WIC provides at least a third of an infant’s daily calories as milk, eggs or meats; the Quality Review adds a meager offering of 2 percent of energy from milk to the food it intends for malnourished children living in the most food-insecure regions of the world. The other 98 percent is corn, soy and vegetable oil.

Last year in Niger, an impoverished sub-Saharan nation, Doctors Without Borders distributed a milk-based paste fortified with vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients to 150,000 young children between 6 months and 2 years, as part of a program providing medical care for common childhood illnesses, including malaria.

We monitored closely, and observed that deaths among those children receiving the milk-based supplement were reduced by half compared with those who did not receive it.

The USAID quality review recommends the inclusion of these “baby foods” but because they cost more humanitarian aid agencies will likely continue to rely on the less appropriate corn-soy flours.

Investments in child health and nutrition programs should be based on what children need, no matter where they live.

Susan Shepherd of Butte, Mont., is a pediatrician. She has worked for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders for the last four years and coordinates work in nutrition. She has worked in Uganda, Chad, Niger and Ghana.

3 Responses to “Empty Calories and Promises”

  1. Jamie Lim says:

    I’m not entirely sure that I understand the economic issues presented in the short film – why does the U.S. require the vast majority of donated food come from U.S. farms? Is MSF saying that the donated food could be produced somewhere else for less cost, thus freeing up money to spend on higher quality foods?

    I’m very interested in this topic, and I admire MSF so much for advocating such issues that many aren’t aware of. Thank you for all the work your organization does – thank you for being that beacon of hope. My dream is to work for MSF one day.

  2. Dario says:

    Yes that’s exactly what they’re saying. The U.S. require food aid to come from the U.S. to support American farmers, so they’re sure they will sell their crops on the “aid market”. It’s a revamp of an old policy that was aimed at developing agriculture: when farmers are sure to sell of all their crops they can invest in more and more equipment without having to worry about the market.

    The problem is that over time the U.S. has created tens of thousands of jobs entirely dependent on food aid. So if you were to one day solve the food crisis or famine in Africa, tens of thousands of people in the US would loose their jobs.

    And for countless reasons, African farmers should be the one helped to develop their agriculture (I think there is a recent UN program that’s proving somewhat successful), and in priority in countries neighboring those plagued by the famine since they have better weather conditions for farming. Developing agriculture there would also develop regional trade, and make these countries more independent (i.e. less dependent on international aid) which is after all the end goal of humanitarian aid. Or at least it should be its end goal. And of course Africans producing food for themselves implies that they would tend to produce better quality too.

    You can read more on the issue with USAID and NGOs here: http://www.poverties.org/famine-in-africa.html (check out the food crisis page too for a broader picture)

  3. Dario says:

    And don’t forget to sign the petition in the “take action” section! Or at the very very bottom of the main page.