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Invest in nutrition and stop the lottery of life

ensuring every child has a chance at a healthy life should not be a matter of luck. Should children’s optimal growth be a privilege?

I’ve spent the last three years championing improved nutrition--particularly for children and women.

I’m often asked: “Why Nutrition?” Since undernutrition is an underlying cause of more than 3 million deaths of children each year, I answer: “Why not?”

I was born and raised in Zambia, where 40 percent of children under age 5 are stunted. They suffered a chronic form of malnutrition that slowed their growth at an early age. The devastating consequences include impaired cognitive development and weakened immune systems. An additional 6 percent of children under age 5 are wasted – an acute form of malnutrition associated with starvation, and another 15 percent are underweight – too thin for their age.

Unfortunately, malnutrition problems are not unique to my homeland. Globally, more than 155 million children under age 5 suffer from stunting. Malnutrition also presents a serious challenge to development and economic growth, contributing to disease and perpetuating poverty.

Yet malnutrition is not widely discussed and many do not recognize the problems it causes. This is reflected in the low investment levels to address nutrition problems, at both global and national levels.

I started working on nutrition advocacy after my own struggles with ill health. I had three major surgeries in two years. Before and after each surgery, I had to fast -- in some cases for days. After each procedure, I had to reintroduce myself to food: first liquids, then semi-solids, then soft foods. I would work my way up from butternut soup to Nshima, the African staple made from corn meal. These experiences helped give me some perspective on food and nutrition problems.

I owe my recovery largely to a resilient family, pooled resources and a talented doctor. Yet it was still a three-year uphill fight. Many mothers and children do not have the support system that I have.

Ultimately, I know I am very lucky. But ensuring every child has a chance at a healthy life should not be a matter of luck. Should children’s optimal growth be a privilege? Must they be denied an opportunity at health care?

So, I decided I had to add my voice to advancing health equity.

Nutrition advocacy for the early years is key, and is particularly vital in the first 1,000 days of life, between birth and a child’s second birthday. Before children can speak, malnutrition can deny them basic opportunities to maximize their potential. I want to see all people, no matter who or where they are from, have the best chance at life. Not just to survive but to thrive. This is at the core of the message of why early intervention on nutrition is crucial, particularly in confronting stunting

Though nutrition may not seem like a big idea, investing in it has big results. Every dollar invested in nutrition, according to a Global Nutrition report has a $16 return. It shows how early child interventions have lifelong implications.

There are many serious problems around the globe. But, for many, malnutrition is at the heart. If we allow the same rate of stunting to continue, for example, 155 million people worldwide will likely have little chance at full productivity. If the developed world wants to “leave no one behind,” as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals envisage, countries must take ownership of the problem and invest in nutrition.

My own experience of limited hunger because of ill health, made me appreciate the importance of nutrition. Hunger for too many children is not a onetime experience. Their lack of proper nutrition in early life has irreversible consequences for the world.