Nutrition during the 1,000 days between a child’s conception and their second birthday is critical to their future success, dictating both brain and physical development.
And yet the vegetable American toddlers are most likely to eat is a french fry.
Child health advocates gathered on Capitol Hill Wednesday to mark the release of a new report, “The First 1,000 Days: Nourishing America’s Future,” which documents the scourge of malnutrition in the U.S.
1,000 Days, a nonprofit that advocates nationally and globally for better early nutrition, produced the report, which highlights the economic gap that prevents many families from meeting some of the World Health Organization’s basic nutritional standards.
The report highlights a number of factors: Nearly half of U.S. women gain an excessive amount of weight during pregnancy, which can lead to higher rates of obesity in children. And only 22 percent of infants are exclusively breastfed to 6 months, which the WHO recommends due to breastmilk’s unparalleled nutritional properties. Those deficiencies are largely due to a lack of institutional support, as less than half of moms receive any paid time off after childbirth, limiting their ability to breastfeed.
The report also found that at least 40 percent of parents introduce solid foods and sugary drinks to their children too early, and one in four toddlers don’t receive enough iron in their diet.
That doesn’t even begin to address all the economic factors at play.
“Half of the babies born in this country are participating in Women, Infants and Children program here in the United States,” Lucy Sullivan, the executive director of 1,000 Days, said on Capitol Hill Wednesday, referring to the program commonly known as WIC.
“That’s a reminder that the problems we are dealing with is not a small population over here somewhere in the U.S. that maybe looks like the population of a developing country,” she added. “It is all of us. The face of hunger and malnutrition looks like America.”
Hugh Welsh, the president of DSM, a major global producer of vitamins, minerals and nutrition supplements, highlighted the lack of understanding in the U.S. about the dire need for a well-balanced mix of vitamins and nutrients.
“I could travel to Malawi, and everyone there would understand, but I could travel to Milwaukee and no one would understand what I was talking about with micronutrients,” he said.
In the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, the brain needs the proper mix of nutrients to fully form. Without enough iron or specific vitamins, a child’s brain may never form all its potential synapses. They can also be physically weaker, and the combination can set the child up to be less competitive in the workforce later in life and raise their health care costs.
Experts also worry that the nutritional diets of infants today mimic those of a growing number of overweight and obese American adults, setting them up for a lifetime unhealthy food choices and health problems.
“The face of hunger and malnutrition looks like America.”
Barbara Bush, daughter of former President George W. Bush and the CEO and co-founder of Global Health Corps, stressed the irreversibility of the first 1,000 days.
“You can’t catch up,” she told The Huffington Post. “It will impact everything you do, whether that be how you learn or if you can learn fully and all of your mechanisms to engage in life.”
Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.) echoed Bush: “These children are losing the chance to reach their full potential before they even get started.”
Advocates said they were pleased the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services have started to develop the first-ever dietary guidelines for children under the age of 2, but those standards are not expected until 2020. The panel and congressional leaders highlighted the need for legislation about increased nutritional information and paid family leave.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said the issue requires bipartisan action.
“This has to be a commitment to putting kids, and their need for access to food and nutrition, in the front of the agenda,” Casey said. He called for a Marshall Plan for the children of America, much like the billions of dollars in economic support the U.S. gave to Europe after WWII.
Bush echoed those calls to action, stressing that America’s children need access to these fundamental nutrients as they grow.
“The most devastating part is when you are 2 years old and younger, you don’t have a lot of control over your life,” she said. “But it can have an impact on your life in perpetuity.”
Video shot and produced by Amber Ferguson.