Childhood hunger and malnutrition often bring to mind images that are familiar in the media. The "face of hunger" presented to the public is often that of starving children in sub-Saharan Africa or India, or those sitting at near-empty dinner tables in rural Appalachia. However, there is another aspect to this epidemic that is thankfully gaining traction in the discourse on hunger issues, but we must also reinforce: the effects of poor nutrition within the timeframe of the first "1000 Days" - the one thousand day period from conception to a child's second birthday.
Hunger and malnutrition can stake their claim in the lives of the next generation before they ever take their first breaths. Without proper foods and nourishment, a mother may barely have sufficient nutrients to fulfill her own dietary needs, let alone that of the growing child she holds in-utero. Furthermore, this lack of nutrition already begins to wreak havoc on the child during the prenatal stage. If the deficit of proper nutrition continues through the vital early-development stages of a child's life the effects are devastating and, in many cases, irreversible.
- The World Food Programme hunger statistics state that "one in four of the world's children are stunted. In developing countries the proportion can rise to one in three."
- More than 35 percent of child deaths worldwide are "due to maternal & child under-nutrition."
- Sufficient nutrition within the 1000-day period significantly reduces susceptibility to communicable and non-communicable diseases, and can save more than one million lives every year.
At a Board of Directors meeting of the Alliance to End Hunger earlier this month, we had a fantastic panel with representatives from 1000 Days, No Kid Hungry, and the Bread for the World Institute, who discussed the topic from both a national and international standpoint, and the crucial steps we need to take to address it. My good friend, author Roger Thurow, shared with us firsthand experiences of confronting the cruel realties of this preventable epidemic as he conducted research for his upcoming book, which underscores the importance of the 1000-day period from a multitude of situations, including in the United States. One of these realities is stunting, of which the effects are severe. Roger spoke of meeting a young boy who, at 15 years old, blended seamlessly into a first grade class -- both in stature and intellect, due to stunting.
Between the years of 1998-2007, I traveled eight times to North Korea's capital city of Pyongyang. I witnessed North Korean children who were living, breathing reminders of our responsibility as human beings to create a solution to hunger and malnutrition. Nearly every child I encountered was alarmingly stunted, with children between the ages of 11 and 14 barely as tall as my waist. If we can imagine that for just one moment, the seriousness of this issue really begins to take hold. These children are victims of preventable mental and physical debilitations, and their misfortune will negatively impact their own lives and communities for years to come.
But the consequences of ignoring the importance of nutrition in the 1000-day window are not confined to the developing world. In the United States, the economic impact of hunger on our nation has an astronomical cost of at least $167.5 billion "due to the combination of lost economic productivity per year, more expensive public education because of the rising costs of poor education outcomes, avoidable health care costs, and the cost of charity to keep families fed." In both national and international contexts, acting upon the knowledge of the importance of adequate nutrition in the first 1000 days is truly an investment in the future; and it is simply too costly to ignore.