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Stunting Is a ‘Life Sentence of Underachievement and Underperformance’

Hunger and starvation tend to make for headlines only in crisis situations. But Chicago Council on Global Affairs fellow and journalist Roger Thurow thinks chronic malnutrition has vast implications and demands urgent attention.

Written by Amruta Byatnal Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Mothers undergo nutrition training in Uganda.Provided by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Roger Thurow, a senior fellow on global food and agriculture at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, is a veteran journalist who has covered the implications of malnutrition worldwide.

Thurow, who spent 20 years as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Europe and Africa, and his former WSJ colleague Scott Kilman are authors of “Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty,” for which they were awarded Action Against Hunger’s Humanitarian Award in 2009. Thurow is also the author of “The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change.”

In his latest book, “The First 1,000 Days: A Crucial Time for Mothers and Children –and the World,” he discusses the importance of nutrition in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. By following mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala and the United States, Thurow attempts to shine a light on the obstacles that women face in preventing stunting in their children. By addressing a host of related issues including agriculture, sanitation and education, he provides a full picture of the challenges in raising healthy children.

Malnutrition Deeply spoke with Thurow about his reporting on this critical issue.

Malnutrition Deeply: What were your thoughts when you saw children affected by malnutrition while working on your books?

Roger Thurow: My mantra as a journalist is to outrage and inspire. I think the most shocking outrage in my book, “The First 1,000 Days,” is that one in every four children under five years of age in our world today is stunted. In the developing world, it’s one in every three. In doing the reporting, you see that stunting is basically this life sentence of underachievement and underperformance. The impacts move over time and place. A stunted child becomes a stunted adult. Their years in school are less, because of the cognitive stunting. When they’re in school, what they’re able to study and learn is reduced. When they’re in the workplace, their productivity is lower. Their earnings capacity is less and they become more susceptible to chronic diseases later in life, raising healthcare costs.

You see how this expands just from the individual. Then what that means for the family, the communities and the nations. And then for the world as a whole. The World Bank estimates $3.5 trillion might be lost every year in economic activity because of the cumulative impact of malnutrition and childhood stunting. You can see how a stunted child anywhere becomes a stunted child everywhere. It affects everybody.

It’s things like, a song that’s not sung or a poem not written or a novel not imagined or a building not designed or some kind of innovation not nurtured. It’s a lost chance at greatness for one person that becomes a lost chance for greatness for all of us, because who knows what they might have accomplished.

No matter other development efforts, there’s that card of malnutrition and stunting that overrides everything else. I think that’s what the world needs to think about and grasp and the tremendous cost of what we’re doing. That we tolerate this and allow it in the 21st century is staggering.

Malnutrition Deeply: Why did you decide to focus on malnutrition?

Thurow: We’ve all seen the horrible, tragic photos, and the film coverage of the impact of hunger and starvation in times of food emergency or crisis or natural disaster or war or conflict. You see the emaciated bodies. That’s only one aspect of hunger and malnutrition in our midst today. The greater number and more vast is the number of chronically malnourished people, the people who are micronutrient-deficient – this is hidden hunger. When you ask what does malnutrition look like in the year 2017, I think that’s the larger picture.

Malnutrition Deeply: In your books, you have interviewed a lot of mothers who confront malnutrition. What was your impression of them? What did they want?

Thurow: A universal craving of moms around the world is this craving for knowledge: What else can I do for myself during my pregnancy or for my child? This knowledge is so important. As I went around to these moms in these four countries and four regions [in writing “The First 1,000 Days”], it was also really surprising to see how that education and the messaging was the same everywhere.

The proper nutrition, the sanitation, the hygiene – nobody’s too rich for that or too poor for that. It’s the same whether you’re highly educated or illiterate. Whether you’re living in the North or the South. These are all essential things that bind us as humans and bind humanity. This good nutrition, particularly in the early years of life, is so important.

Malnutrition Deeply: Were there instances when knowledge wasn’t enough, and more programmatic efforts were needed to make a difference?

Thurow: As I described, particularly in Guatemala, in one instance where the moms in the nutrition lessons, they had little paper or felt and Velcro cutouts of different foods and the food groups. A nutritionist was calling out, “Where do we get iron?” They would move those shapes into the food bowl. It was real fun and they were engaged and it was really interactive.

But at the end of that, a couple of moms would say, “This was really fun and we learned a lot.” But the reality barged in when they said, “We know what foods to eat, but we can’t afford them. Do you know the price of apples? Do you know the price of other fruits and vegetables?” The inability to put that knowledge into play makes that knowledge become a burden.

Malnutrition Deeply: Do you think the mainstream media and readers are interested in this issue?

Thurow: When I was at the Wall Street Journal, I had some editors who at various times were really in tune with this and encouraging my writing and wanting more stories on this. They might ask, “What’s new about this story?” What’s new is that it’s still with us. What’s new is that’s it’s old. This medieval suffering of malnutrition and stunting is still with us in the 21st century. That’s what we need to be writing about. To be able to convince editors that this is something we constantly need to be writing about it. It’s not just in the extreme cases and the catastrophes. This is something that abides with us constantly.

When the first book, “Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty,” which I wrote with Scott Kilman, came out, we tried to put together everything that we knew and had been covering and our other knowledge that we had. The point of “Enough” was: How have we brought hunger with us into the 21st century when more food is being produced than ever before? When technological successes have transformed agriculture, have conquered the abject famine in so many parts of the world. What happened to that momentum?

There were problems with those innovations, there always are. But why didn’t we stick with them to make sure that we conquer the challenges of water shortages, of water depletion, of pollutants entering the system? What happened to that?

I figured that after writing that book I had other opportunities to write about it, to write for other publications and speak about it. I figured that it was time to leave the WSJ to write about this issue in longer-form, narrative journalism, in book form, and still in a very journalistic manner – heavy on people and characters and conversation. To take those academic findings, scientific findings and medical findings and put it into a popular narrative; that it has this narrative that makes people want to read it. My philosophy is: As readers become interested in the real people in the book, they also then come to care about the issues and to understand them.

Malnutrition Deeply: Are you optimistic about where we go from here?

Thurow: With the intent to outrage and inspire, at times when I’m focusing on the outrage, I might be more pessimistic. But if I’m looking at the inspire side of it, then there are things going on. I speak at universities and high schools. There you can see the enthusiasm and the passion from the students and the people out there to do something. Why have we allowed this? Why has this come into the new millennium? Why does the problem still abide with us? We need to do something about this. Hopefully they see this interest and passion for justice, for equality.

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