Investing in Nutrition

This post originally appeared on InterAction’s blog and was featured on the 1,000 Days blog on June 6, 2013.

“There is no finer investment for any community than putting milk into babies. Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.”

So declared Winston Churchill at the height of the Second World War in a radio broadcast to the British people. Unfortunately, over seventy years later, too many nations remain afflicted with hunger and malnutrition, and too many children lack the basic nourishment they need for their brains and bodies to develop properly.

Today, 1 in 4 children under five are permanently stunted from malnutrition. Stunted children learn less in school, earn less later in life, and are far more vulnerable to disease. A recent study by Save the Children revealed that chronic malnutrition—especially during the first 1,000 days between a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday—can cause a lifetime of irreversible damage to children’s bodies and brains, effectively locking them into a cycle of hunger and poverty that’s all but impossible to break.

New data from the British medical journal, The Lancet, found that malnutrition is responsible for nearly half of all child deaths under five – 3.1 million children a year – effectively identifying it as the single greatest threat to child survival. The new series reinforces the importance of focusing efforts on improving nutrition during the 1,000-day window, particularly in the early part of that window.  Poor nutrition before and during a woman’s pregnancy is estimated to cause 800,000 child deaths every year.

A continued focus on the 1,000-day window has the potential to save lives and confer a lifetime of benefits for children, their families and societies. Better nutrition during the 1,000-day window can boost a child’s IQ, improve her chances of earning an education, and increase her lifetime earnings by up to 46 percent. It has also been correlated with a rise in GDP by as much as 11 percent.

Some nations, having recognized the extraordinary impact of improving maternal and child nutrition, have begun to take action. Guatemala’s government recently launched its “Zero Hunger Pact” and “Ventana de los Mil Dias” campaign to reduce chronic malnutrition in children under age five by 10 percent by 2015. The Republic of Zambia has sought to reduce childhood stunting by launching a national campaign, the “First 1,000 Most Critical Days Programme” to scale up proven nutrition interventions from pregnancy through a child’s second birthday.

These country-level initiatives are a critical step forward—but the funding to implement them often falls short.

Fortunately, in just a few days on June 8th, the governments of the United Kingdom and Brazil, along with the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, will host a high-level international meeting – Nutrition for Growth: Beating Hunger through Business and Science – in London.  The event will bring together business leaders, scientists, governments and civil society to make the ambitious first step in repositioning malnutrition as a top economic and social development priority to improve the lives of millions of women and children worldwide.

Let us hope that, as global leaders gather in London, the political will to end malnutrition follows the evidence – evidence that Mr. Churchill inherently understood almost a century ago.


Many thanks to 1,000 Days for allowing us to cross-promote this educational post.