It's Time to End the Double-Standard of Food Aid

Today, millions of malnourished children worldwide depend on food aid. But did you know that the United States and other wealthy countries are sending sub-standard food overseas to address malnutrition?

Much of food aid is comprised of fortified blended corn and soy flours and cereals. While these foods can relieve hunger -- and do save the lives of many adults -- they do not meet the basic nutritional requirements of infants and young children, the most vulnerable people in food insecure regions and during food crises. Malnutrition affects 195 million children every year, claiming the lives of up to one third of the eight million annual deaths of kids under five.

Some countries, like Mexico and Brazil, have successfully reduced childhood malnutrition through ambitious national programs -- just as has been accomplished in European countries and in the United States. The precondition for their success is clear: It is only when children have access to quality food and appropriate nutritional programs that the fight against early childhood malnutrition can be won.

The United States government recognizes this. The domestic nutrition program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), provides vouchers to low-income mothers for the purchase of high-value foods like milk, fruit and eggs. Thus, the United States sends inadequate food overseas to vulnerable children that it would not use in its domestic nutrition programs.

Most of the damage caused by malnutrition occurs before children 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 overall physical and mental development. 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, result in life-long health consequences, and, worse, increase the risk of death from common childhood illness.

Successful countries have chosen to apply this knowledge to their nutritional programs and have reaped the benefits. But many countries in the developing world depend on food aid, and cannot make that choice.

And food aid donors are not helping.

The United States, the world's biggest food aid donor, continues to send the corn-soy flours that do not address childhood malnutrition. You would be hard pressed to find these foods in American grocery stores, because it's food we would never feed our own children.

U.S. international food assistance has not always been substandard. In the 1960s, when fortified blended food was designed under the leadership of USAID, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the National Institutes of Heath (NIH), it contained milk powder, and was developed with a specification responding to then available nutritional science. But, when milk surpluses began to dry up in the 1980s and the price of milk escalated, the milk was removed, considerably weakening the nutrition composition of these foods. This practice has not changed.

This double standard is exposed in Starved for Attention: the Neglected Crisis of Childhood Malnutrition, a global multimedia campaign recently launched by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

International donors, particularly those making the largest humanitarian contributions to food assistance projects, including the United States, Canada, the European Union and Japan, must support programs that meet the minimal nutritional needs of infants and young children, and work with countries to put nutrient-rich foods at the center of their efforts to tackle childhood malnutrition. World leaders once more committed to fight undernutrition at the United Nations summit on Millennium Development Goals last month. But committing to fight undernutrition while continuing to send sub standards food makes no sense, and brings us no closer to tackling malnutrition. The first step in their efforts must be centered around changing the quality of the food aid they provide.

There is now finally some recognition by the United States government and other donors of the problem surrounding the quality of food aid. New policies are being crafted -- but they need to be implemented.This is no time for complacency.

I ask you to sign the petition on the Starved for Attention website, to demand that governments supplying humanitarian food aid ensure that the food meets nutritional standards for infants and young children. The petition will be presented to the top food aid donor countries in advance of the G8 Summit in 2011.

You can also order a Starved for Attention action kit, to enable supporters, donors, medical students, and others to put on their own SFA events and collect petition signatures. You can order the kit here.

Food aid is not the final answer to malnutrition, but it is a lifeline for millions of people. As long as young growing children -- especially those under 2 -- depend on food aid, the foods we send must meet their specific nutritional needs.

We must stop giving the world's poorest and most vulnerable children food we would never even think of putting into the mouths of our own kids. We need your help.

In 2010, MSF is operating 120 nutrition programs in 36 countries. Already, our teams in Niger have treated more than 100,000 children for severe acute malnutrition this year.

Starved for Attention: the Neglected Crisis of Childhood Malnutrition, is a 7-part mini documentary series launched in collaboration with the VII photo agency. VII Photojournalists Marcus Bleasdale, Jessica Dimmock, Ron Haviv, Antonin Kratochvil, Franco Pagetti, Stephanie Sinclair, and John Stanmeyer documented malnutrition's varied faces and contexts: malnourished children in lush and bountiful Congo; the cyclical nature of malnutrition in Bangladesh; the impact of the annual "lean season" in the Sahel, among other settings. You can view their work here.