Preventing Malnutrition, One Child at a Time

Long before I joined Action Against Hunger and became fervently committed to ending childhood malnutrition, I had a "nutrition incident." What happened undoubtedly shaped my future approach to the work I do today.

In 2004, I was working in Ghana and had to get to Sierra Leone. On the flight, I was seated next to a young Ghanian father and his baby. Rarely have I seen such a doting, loving dad. I watched as he tried to get his baby girl to sleep. He cooed, sang softly, and stroked this lovely infant. When I commented on how adorable the baby was, he shared with me that she was "perfect in every way -- except one." She does not sleep well, he said, and he was exhausted.

It was then that he pulled a bottle of soda out of his bag and gently coaxed the baby to drink it. When I asked if he knew about caffeine and the effects it could have on his little girl, he was horrified. As we landed, his parting words to me were, "No more soda. Tomorrow night, finally, we will both sleep; thank you for letting me know."

My advice may have prevented many sleepless nights for this father. But I also hope it helped prevent something more serious: the effects of poor nutrition, from which his daughter could have suffered.

I met this young girl during the first thousand days of her development -- the critical period from the start of her mother's pregnancy to her second birthday. The care she received in this early stage of life had the power to shape her future. With good nutrition, she could grow and learn to her full potential. But without it, she would be at risk for malnutrition, which can cause developmental delays, weakness, and immune deficiencies -- and, if left untreated, can be fatal.

Far too many children suffer this fate. Worldwide, some 34 million children are severely malnourished -- one million of whom die every year. But we can stop this from happening. For the first time in history, we have the tools and expertise to stop children from dying of preventable causes like malnutrition.

Such is the message of the Child Survival Call to Action. In 2012, government leaders, NGOs, and private partners banded together to answer the call, and to show their support for this ambitious yet achievable goal: to stop millions of children around the world from dying of causes we can prevent and diseases we can treat. And since then, the global community has made enormous strides in the fight against malnutrition and other preventable diseases.

Each year, Action Against Hunger's dedicated team members save the lives of hundreds of thousands of malnourished children with therapeutic nutrition treatment. We also prevent countless more outbreaks of malnutrition with our community-based programs that tackle the underlying causes of hunger, like lack of access to nutritious food or clean water, or even simply lack of information on proper nutrition and hygiene.

Often, it's basic information and instruction that make the biggest difference between whether a child will become malnourished, or thrive and grow up healthy. I learned that lesson ten years ago on my trip to Sierra Leone. So now, when we craft programs that teach mothers the importance of breastfeeding, or guide parents on how to grow highly nutritious food in their home gardens, I think of that father and daughter. Because whether we're showing one father how to best care for his daughter, or strengthening a whole community's resistance to malnutrition, we're helping more children reach their second birthday and beyond.

This post is part of a blog series in partnership with 1,000 Days to highlight global momentum for nutrition. Click here to view the entire series.