The United States sends out hundreds of thousands of tons of international food assistance to starving children and mothers all over the world every year. Makes you feel pretty good, right? We are the world's largest food donor. With 195 million children under the age of 5 experiencing malnutrition in the world, this year it's great that Americans care enough to help.
Except in many cases we're not really helping that much.
America is sending nutritionally poor and, in fact, detrimental food to the world's hungriest children and mothers. As a mother this issue really digs deep in me. If I'd been born somewhere else other than the U.S., and if the worst happened, what kind of aid would I want for my son? If I'd weaned him, or my milk supply dried because I was starving, how would I want him fed?
What should we be sending instead?
What are we sending and is it really so bad?
For the most part, the U.S. sends assistance in the form of a corn soy blend (CSB) and in fortified blended flours (FBF).
These blends are low in nutrients needed especially by recently weaned children: high-quality protein, essential fats, vitamins, and minerals. CSB and FBF do not contain dairy, which is important for growth. On the other hand, CSB and FBF are high in anti-nutrients, which keep children from absorbing and digesting what little nutrition there is.
These cereal blends fill hungry children, but they do not treat malnutrition. Malnutrition and hunger are not the same thing -- malnutrition is a serious medical condition marked by a deficiency of essential proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals in a diet.
The U.S. used to include milk powder in its international food aid, but when milk prices rose in the 1960s, milk was removed from its foreign assistance program -- and it's never been restored.
So what should we be sending instead?
No one is proposing that the U.S. send four-course banquets as foreign aid, but we could be sending nutrient dense ready-to-use foods. Last year, Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) treated 250,000 children suffering from acute malnutrition mostly with these nutrient dense ready-to-use foods. These foods are more expensive than CSB and FBF, but they deliver far more nutritional value than our current food aid.
The World Health Organization, The World Food Program, and UNICEF have all called on the U.S. to change the formula for their international food assistance.
Meanwhile, Doctors Without Borders has collaborated with VII Photo on a multimedia campaign that includes videos documenting hunger around the world and a petition which will be presented to the world's top food aid donors at the 2011 G8 Summit.
They have also drafted an open letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and Rajiv Shah of the U.S. Agency for International Development asking that the U.S. start sending food aid that meets the nutritional needs of young children. As usual, the U.S. is not going to spend a dime more or bother changing the way it does things unless they hear us demanding change.
Is it enough for the US to fend off hunger, or should we address malnutrition, too?
Image via Jessica Dimmock/VII Network