Childhood Malnutrition Worldwide and the Revolution Taking Place to End It
Reflections on writing a book about childhood malnutrition.
People are sometimes too shy to ask: Why would I want to write a book about childhood malnutrition? It’s such a sad subject. A quarter of the world’s children are stunted physically and mentally due to a lack of food or nutrients. A quarter of the world’s children. That’s not only sad, it’s overwhelming. The heart stutters. We turn away. There’s nothing we can do.
Usually, I answer the question even when it isn’t asked. I wrote Within Our Grasp: Childhood Malnutrition Worldwide and the Revolution Taking Place to End It (Pantheon Books, 2021) because I believe that ending childhood malnutrition is, actually, a hopeful subject. We have the knowledge now and we have the means. Collectively, we can do this. Hope is what drew me as a writer.
To some extent, too, I was following a story I had encountered years ago. In the research for my Hunger: An Unnatural History (Basic Books, 2005), I first learned about the crucial role of vitamins and minerals in a child’s early development and how a lack of those micronutrients results in stunting. At that time, the development of ready-to-eat therapeutic food (RUTF) was relatively new. Convenient packets of tasty, fortified peanut-buttery paste were being given to malnourished children in the home, by their parents, without the need for refrigeration or clean water. This precisely fortified food-medicine resulted in near miraculous recovery, even in very sick children.
In writing Within Our Grasp, a dozen years later, I wanted to hear the rest of that story, to go deeper into the history of RUTF and also to explore its future. Today, we have learned so much more about the prevention and treatment of childhood malnutrition. We know, for example, that ending childhood malnutrition must include empowering women. It must include good sanitation. It must include the treatment of disease. This holistic approach is very much part of the “revolution” of the 21rst century.
We also know that this is an environmental as well as a humanitarian concern. That matters a lot to me. Most of the books I write are about nature and my relationship to animals and wild landscapes. I have long regretted an unnecessary divide between environmentalists and humanitarians. In fact, our goals align. Ending childhood malnutrition means supporting smallholder farmers in a sustainable agriculture that can help mitigate global warming. Ending childhood malnutrition will result in a decline in population growth; when parents know that all their children are going to flourish, they tend to have fewer children. Ending childhood malnutrition means more biodiversity; wildlife can only thrive when the people living next to wildlife are thriving too.
Healthy children require a healthy Earth. A healthy Earth requires healthy children.
To be honest, I also wanted to celebrate nutrition as well as write about malnutrition. I frankly marvel at the miracle of the body, how we take in strings of molecules—proteins and carbohydrates and fats—and turn them into thought and story and action. I marvel at the way iron circulates in our blood, bringing oxygen to cells, and how zinc ions are so crucial to cellular metabolism that, as one scientist said, “At the cellular level, zinc can hardly be considered a trace mineral.” As I write in Within Our Grasp, “We stare into the periodic table. It’s like looking into a mirror.”
Celebration drew me as a writer. As part of that, I chose to center the book in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, also known as “the warm heart of Africa.” Here I would look at successful programs working to end childhood malnutrition. Over and over again, I found them.
Of course, the pandemic of the last two years has only increased global hunger. But the pandemic has also taught us how easily we can spend money on public health and how important it is to do that. Economists tell us that money invested in good nutrition is one of the best investments a society can make. Analysts from the World Bank say that a relatively modest and additional $33 billion a year over the next ten years could end the majority of hunger in the world not related to war and conflict.
This is, literally, within our grasp.