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World Food Day: Healthy People Need Healthy Food Systems

Poverty, whose trademark is often seen as hunger, still exists in nearly every country in the world. It’s especially striking in remote, rural areas where food is less accessible and less secure, where health workers are sparse, and where other basic health and education services are lacking.

These scarcities affect the health and well-being of everyone who lives there—including children and young people

.On October 16, 2013, World Food Day will examine sustainable food systems for food security and nutrition, led by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The vision of World Food Day is to strengthen the world’s political will to end hunger

Take Uganda, for example, an East African country with population of about 34 million people, and growing by 3.6 percent every year. According to the 2013 Global Monitoring Report by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Uganda may achieve only two of its eight Millennium Development Goals by 2015. While those goals—eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, and providing clean, safe water—are important, Uganda has mountains yet to climb. 

In Uganda, the 2011 Demographic and Health Survey found that while the proportion of children that are stunted and underweight has declined, 38% of children remain chronically undernourished or stunted. (Stunting, or low height for age, is the primary symptom of long-term malnutrition.) This is a huge portion of the country’s people, especially when you consider that more than half of the population in Uganda is age 15 or younger. 

(Ironically, this issue affects all economic groups in areas where agriculture drives the local economy. Food production is a major economic driver in Uganda, and some parts of the country are relatively food secure. But food availability is compromised in many remote and insecure areas, such as the northeastern Karamoja Region.)

The number of young people in Uganda and many other sub-Saharan countries that suffer due to weak or unsustainable food systems is daunting. We know that childhood stunting and under-nutrition in general have long-term implications for children’s physical health, school performance, and overall development. According UNICEF’s 2013 Improving Child Nutrition report, 165 million children under the age of five today are stunted from poor nutrition.

Many countries in East and Central Africa have reduced under-five stunting levels and child mortality rates through innovation and focus. We must learn from these country-led successes. How did Ethiopia, for example, reduce child stunting levels from an estimated 57% in 2000 to 44% in 2011? And how did the country so successfully reduce its under-five mortality rate, meeting its Millennium Development Goal 4 target just last month, well in advance of 2015? 

What We Can Do: Best Practices to Improve Child NutritionImproving child nutrition remains an important global public health priority, even in countries that have achieved some success. As a global community, we can do plenty to help accomplish this:

  • Scale up community interventions based on sound country policies with multi-sectorial support based on political will and understanding of the importance of stronger national, regional, and community nutrition programs.
  • Accelerate investments in equity-focused community outreach nutrition initiatives that target the most vulnerable populations, particularly in food-insecure geographic areas.
  • Proactively link food systems and health systems, and the agricultural and health workers who make those systems work. 
  • Accelerate interventions that improve the nutrition of children from birth through the first 1,000 days of life, from the time they are in their mothers’ wombs all the way through the first two years.
  • Continue to focus on the overall nutrition and health status of mothers through facility and community maternal health and nutrition interventions.
  • Build the capacity of community and facility health care providers, teachers, and agricultural extension agents, applying a multi-system approach to reduce stunting, even where poverty and food insecurity are commonplace.
  • Expand access to high-quality family planning services to lower the number of unplanned pregnancies and abortions and delay first pregnancies, particularly in young people. This will be a major focus of the upcoming 2013 International Conference on Family Planning in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, November 12-15.

Twenty years ago, I worked as an NGO country representative on US Agency for International Development-funded global child-survival projects, including the PRITECH Project (Technologies for Primary Health Care in Kenya) and the BASICS Project in Madagascar. That opportunity to work with ministries of health at all levels, while being guided by international child survival and nutrition experts, showed me very tangibly the devastating impacts of stunting, under-nutrition, and malnutrition. That life-changing work experience, along with my continued public health work at IntraHealth International in East Africa, has led me to firmly believe that improving child nutrition is an achievable imperative for global progress

We must plan well for the nutritional health and well-being of our global children, particularly those living in impoverished circumstances. Poverty and hunger may be all some children know, but now is the time to change that.Invest in the global health workforce now.Explore other ways to act through