UN Food Crisis Summit Must Move Beyond Old Ineffective Recipes

Valérie Batselaere/MSF
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MSF Calls for Reforms to Food Aid and Nutrition Programs to Save Young Lives

Rome/New York, June 2, 2008 – As heads-of-state and nearly 20 key United Nations officials meet in Rome this week to design a plan to tackle the current global food crisis, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is urging the adoption and rapid scale-up of specific nutritional strategies that target children under two years of age.

Simply expanding existing interventions, which were already not able to address the ongoing malnutrition crisis, will certainly not protect the young children who are most vulnerable to rising food prices, MSF said.

“There is a dangerous double standard in which current food aid and nutrition programs are driven more by cost considerations than by the specific nutritional needs of young children,” said Daniel Berman, deputy director of MSF’s Access Campaign. “The nutrient-rich food that growing children need will only reach them if new approaches backed by increased resources are adopted.”

Rapidly growing children have specific nutritional needs and small stomachs. They require food dense in energy and diverse in nutrients, which is best achieved by providing them animal-source foods such as dairy, eggs, meat or fish. Quality of food is as important as quantity, and therefore policy makers must ensure nutrition security and not only food security. Soaring food prices will exacerbate malnutrition, with families not able to afford food nutritious enough for young children to grow and both avoid and overcome disease.

For regions with long-standing malnutrition problems, conventional food aid does not include specific foods for young children. Milk powder was removed from relief food targeted at children in the late 1980s when milk surpluses subsided. Since then, children have been receiving fortified blended flours that contain no animal-source food – a diet which pediatricians do not recommend for children under two.

“We need leaders to open their eyes to the needs of young children who are most vulnerable right now, and for whom more of the same could put them at risk,” said Dr. Susan Shepherd, nutrition advisor at MSF. “One critical question this week is: will donors change the rules so that appropriate food for young children is added to food aid and nutrition programs?”

MSF is calling for food aid to change and for an energy-dense and nutrient-rich diet to be made available to at-risk children. There are new and innovative ways of delivering all the nutrients children need to recover from or to prevent malnutrition and MSF has been able to reach far greater numbers of children in its field projects with new strategies.

The World Health Organization estimates there are 178 million children that are malnourished across the globe, and at any given moment, 20 million suffering from the most severe form of malnutrition. Malnutrition contributes to between 3.5 and 5 million annual deaths of children under five years of age.

According to MSF estimates only 3 percent of the 20 million children suffering from severe acute malnutrition receive the UN-recommended treatment they need. MSF treated over 150,000 children in 2006 and 2007 in 22 countries with nutrient-rich therapeutic and supplemental food.

MSF Malnutrition Fact Sheet – FAO World Food Summit

Rome – June 3-5, 2008

  • The food price crisis has aggravated the chronic crisis of child malnutrition. Malnutrition accounts for 11 percent of the global burden of disease yet this is a crisis that the international community has neglected.
  • Malnutrition is an issue of food quality as much as quantity. Rapidly growing children have specific nutritional needs and thus specific nutritional and food aid interventions are needed. In terms of food aid, more of the same will not be enough. Grains, pulses and fortified flours are not sufficient to address the nutrition crisis.
  • According to MSF estimates, only 3 percent of the 20 million children suffering from severe acute malnutrition each year receive the treatment they need. MSF has successfully used therapeutic ready-to-use food (RUF) to treat severe acute malnutrition and has pilot programs underway with supplemental RUF
  • MSF believes that it is important that both food aid and nutrition programming include interventions that assure the nutrient security of young children in order to avoid malnutrition in the first place.
  • Fortified blended flours (FBF) based on wheat or corn plus soya were initially developed in the 1960s with young children’s nutritional needs in mind, and therefore contained dry milk powder. This ingredient was dropped from these flours in the 1980s for reasons that were primarily economic: the end of milk surpluses. FBFs as currently formulated are not found on the market in developed nations because soya flour is an inappropriate food for young children. It contains poor quality protein and far too many anti-nutrient factors that inhibit absorption of essential minerals such as zinc. This is a deadly double standard driven by minimum cost rather than the imperative to meet minimum nutritional standards.
  • Nutrition programs have not received the political will and funding required to scale up effective interventions, particularly in food insecure regions. The Lancet Malnutrition Series article 5 states: “Annual funding for basic nutrition programming amounts to at most US $250-300 million per year. Even if this amount were perfectly targeted to the children under two living in the 20 countries that account for 80% of stunting, this would amount to $2 per child whereas effective large scale community nutrition programs are estimated to cost $5-10/child.” This costing does not even include the provision of food. No community education-based nutrition programs have been shown to be effective in food insecure regions.
  • In the 2006 publication “Ending Child Hunger and Malnutrition Initiative”, WFP and UNICEF estimate the cost of effectively addressing malnutrition at US $80/family, or US $8 billion for 100 million families. This estimate includes not only health promotion interventions such as clean water and breastfeeding, but also supplementary and therapeutic feeding.
  • MSF does not dispute that food aid needs to be supplemented with medium and long term development programing to stimulate economic and agricultural development through national, bilateral, and multilateral agreements and policies, but it urges that these programs should not be implemented at the expense of targeted and immediate solutions.
  • Malnutrition is a medical emergency that contributes to at least 3.5 million deaths in children under five each year.  The World Health Organization estimates there are 178 million children that are malnourished across the globe, and at any given moment, 20 million suffering from the most severe form.  MSF treated over 150,000 children in 2006 and 2007 in 22 countries with therapeutic and supplemental therapeutic food.