By David Braughton
Look into the eyes of someone who is hungry and one out of five times it will be a child under age five staring back at you. The child will probably bear little resemblance to the graphic images found on the internet of a little wizened skull with sunken eyes sitting atop an emaciated body that more resembles a skeleton than a small living being grasping for life. What you will see is an otherwise ordinary kid who appears stunted (too short for its age) and wasted (underweight for its age). Or, you may see a child who is both too short and, at the same time, obese, another seemingly paradoxical symptom of chronic malnutrition.
Stunting and wasting represent two key markers of child malnutrition. In 2017, there were 151 million children who were abnormally short for their age. There were also 51 million kids who were seriously underweight for their age and 38 million who were overweight. What is particularly alarming is the growing number of children who are overweight and stunted, although no reliable statistics are available to determine the true scope of the problem (UNICEF, WHO, World Bank).
Obesity results when children are fed foods that are high in calories, but which offer little by way of nutrition—protein, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. In many parts of the world, healthy and nutritious foods are both scarce and costly. Highly processed foods, rich in calories, become an appealing substitute when the alternative is going hungry. As a result, children consume more calories than needed, resulting in overweight, a leading cause in the rise of Type II diabetes among children worldwide.
What you may not notice when you first see a hungry child is its flat affect or languid movement, the consequence of anemia and a deficit of essential nutrients. The child may cry often and seldom smile. It may be developmentally delayed, inattentive and unable to concentrate or learn, should he or she be lucky enough to go to school. The child may also suffer up to 161 days of illness per year (Glicken, MD, 2010).
An estimated 5.4 million children under age 5 died in 2017, and, of these, half died within their first month of life. In some parts of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, children are 15 times more likely to die before age 5 than children in high income countries. The leading causes of death—diarrhea, pneumonia, and malaria—are illnesses related to malnutrition. In fact, 45% of all deaths of children under five worldwide are directly linked to malnutrition (World Health Organization).
The Cycle of Child Hunger
Health experts agree that the first 1000 days of a child’s life are the most critical for its development and long-term prospects. The number one risk factor in post-neonatal deaths is low birth weight; the second most prevalent risk factor is malnutrition. In developing countries, one out of six infants is born with a low birth weight (United Nations). Since women comprise sixty-percent of the world’s hungry, it comes as no surprise that the growing prevalence of anemia in women (a major predictor of low birth weight) is a serious red flag, affecting one in three women of reproductive age around the globe.
A fetus that is conceived by a malnourished woman seldom receives the micronutrients needed for healthy gestation, such as iodine, zinc, iron, folate, and vitamin D. After the child is born, she or he will continue to be deprived of the carbohydrates, protein, minerals, and vitamins essential for healthy growth and development, dooming that child to a life of poverty and hunger.
Almost all hungry people are extremely poor, living on less than $1.90 per day. Ninety-eight percent reside in developing countries, with Asia accounting for 62% of the total, Africa 31%, Latin America and the Caribbean 5%, and Oceania and the developed countries the rest. Fully 80% of these individuals live in rural areas, surviving only on the food they grow from their rain-dependent farms.
It is clear, then, why local or regional violence, droughts, floods, other natural disasters, or higher than normal temperatures take such a catastrophic and devastating toll. Any disruption to the tenuous existence of the poor guarantees that the cycle of hunger will continue to repeat itself. Malnourished mothers give birth to undernourished infants, who grow into malnourished children and adults, and so on from one generation to the next.
BGR’s Response to Child Hunger
Understanding the underpinnings and ramifications of the cycle of child hunger explains why Buddhist Global Relief invests so heavily in child nutrition, the education of girls, and improved agricultural techniques such as the System of Rice Intensification and crop diversification. (More about the latter in our next article.)
BGR’s project in Côte d’Ivoire, Improving Nutrition among Children in Korhogo District focuses on the first 1000 days of a child’s life in a country where chronic malnutrition affects about 33% of children under five, where the mortality rate of children under five is close to 20%, and where life expectancy is just 54 years. With its partner, Helen Keller International, BGR is addressing vitamin A and iodine deficiency and educating women about nutrition, breastfeeding, complementary feeding, and feeding the sick child. By the end of the project we hope to reach 77,000 women and their children.
In Kenya, a similar BGR-HKI partnership seeks to improve access, delivery, and utilization of essential nutrition-related services for an estimated 255,000 children and adults.
In Jacmel, Haiti, BGR is involved with the Joan Rose Foundation—a U.S.-based nonprofit—to give impoverished children and their families the opportunity to succeed in life. For the past several years, BGR has sponsored the Foundation’s program that provides local children with two nutritious meals, breakfast and lunch, Monday through Friday.
In Cambodia, BGR has partnered with Lotus Outreach over the past 9 years to help young women gain a primary, secondary, and college education. Historically, girls living in the impoverished rural areas of Cambodia were needed at home to help grow rice. This innovative program provides participating families with surplus rice to make up for any shortfalls resulting from the girl attending school rather than helping out in the fields.
These and other BGR programs are only possible through the generosity and support of our donors like you. Thank you for helping us to end child hunger and malnutrition.
David Braughton is the vice-chair of Buddhist Global Relief. During his professional career he led a number of nonprofit agencies involved with mental health, trauma, and child development.