Need to Fix Food Aid to Tackle the Crisis of Childhood Malnutrition

For Immediate Release

Need to Fix Food Aid to Tackle the Crisis of Childhood Malnutrition

Symposium on malnutrition brings hundreds of international experts to Columbia University Medical Center

NEW YORK - Hundreds of international food aid and nutrition experts,
representatives from donor institutions and aid organizations, and
political leaders gathered in New York today to try to better tackle
the scourge of global childhood malnutrition-a neglected crisis that
contributes to the unnecessary deaths of 3.5 to five million children
under five every year and leaves millions more with life-long
disabilities.

The two-day symposium, titled "Starved for Attention: The Neglected Crisis of Childhood Malnutrition,"
is being hosted by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières
(MSF) and Columbia University's Institute of Human Nutrition (IHN).
Participants will examine why, despite domestic and international
efforts, including billions of dollars in donated food aid every year,
current nutrition programs do not adequately target childhood
malnutrition. They will discuss ways to overcome barriers to improving
diet quality and nutrition programming, particularly in malnutrition
hotspots such as Southeast Asia, the Sahel and Horn of Africa.

"It is unacceptable that current food aid is not providing adequate,
nutrient-rich food for the most vulnerable children," said Dr. Susan
Shepherd, nutrition advisor for MSF's Access to Essential Medicines
Campaign. "It is a double standard that we send food aid to children in
low-income countries that we would never feed to our own children. If
we are serious about preventing the deaths, illnesses, and disabilities
caused by childhood malnutrition, it's time we fix a broken food aid
system. Making food aid more effective will mean changing what we
provide."

For infants and young children, good nutrition depends on breast
feeding and nutrient-rich complementary food. It is an issue of diet
quality-nutrients and energy density-as much as quantity. But for poor
families living in regions devastated by malnutrition, attaining
nutrient-rich foods on a daily basis, particularly animal-source foods,
is not possible. Yet at the international policy level, nutrition
programs have not paid sufficient attention to addressing deficits in
diet quality for infants and young children.

Current food aid for children consists largely of corn or
wheat/soy-blended porridge, the ingredients of which can inhibit
absorption of essential minerals, such as zinc, which are vital to
childhood development and survival. These enriched flours also have no
animal-source content, which is important for rapidly developing
children. The milk component of fortified flours in U.S. overseas food
aid targeted at young children was actually eliminated in the late
1980s for economic reasons.

"As we saw with HIV/AIDS, only when assistance is driven by desperate
needs and not by economic interests do we mobilize sufficient resources
to even begin to address a crisis of this magnitude," said Stephen
Lewis, co-director of AIDS Free World, and keynote speaker for the
first day of the symposium.

Arguably the most important innovation in recent years has been an
outpatient strategy based on milk-based, nutrient fortified, energy
dense therapeutic foods to treat severely malnourished children in the
most resource-limited settings. While strategies need to be adapted to
local contexts in places where infrastructure and resources are
limited, a strategy this simple, affordable, and direct can reach
children in areas where malnutrition is chronically at crisis levels.

"There is no one solution to overcoming malnutrition, but there must be
the political will and commitment to act," said Dr. Richard Deckelbaum,
director of Columbia University's Institute of Human Nutrition. "We
have to ask ourselves: what is the cost of doing nothing?"

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