This guest blog was written by Aaron Emmel, government affairs officer at PATH.
Almost 80 people packed the Global Health Council’s conference room last week, with 63 more listening in online, to learn about new initiatives to strengthen maternal, newborn, and child health by improving nutrition. The briefing was held in conjunction with World Food Day on Oct. 16.
Officials from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) described the intersecting nutrition goals of the U.S. government’s Feed the Future and Global Health Initiatives, while representatives of two global health organizations spoke about how new approaches to reducing malnutrition and under-nutrition are being carried out on the ground.
Asma Lateef, director of the Bread for the World Institute, moderated the discussion. She introduced the panel by pointing out that 3.5 million mothers and children under five years old, die each year due to malnutrition. She explained that the debilitating effects of malnutrition during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life can last a lifetime. She noted that malnutrition can be prevented and treated. Bread for the World, which provides a collective Christian voice urging U.S. decision-makers to end hunger at home and abroad, is part of the global 1,000 Days initiative, which supports international experts and advocates working to improve early nutrition.
Cindy Huang, senior advisor of the Feed the Future Initiative at the State Department, also highlighted the importance of the first 1,000 days. “Improving nutrition in these 1,000 days leads to immediate gains in mortality and morbidity reduction, and lifelong gains in education, poverty reduction, and economic growth,” she said. Huang explained the initiative and the links it makes between agriculture and health. She said that improving nutrition requires a multi-sectoral approach, including agriculture, social behavior, social protection and health.
The Feed the Future Initiative’s goal — to reduce global poverty and hunger sustainably — involves making the right foods available, which includes supporting growth in the agriculture sector; making the food accessible, through improved market access and trade; and making sure that good food is consumed through projects and policies that support good nutrition.
Dr. Bruce Cogill, nutrition division chief in the Bureau for Global Health at USAID, said that the nutrition goals of Feed the Future and the Global Health Initiatives are the same — to reduce child under-nutrition by 30 percent across assisted food insecure countries. Nutrition is important in and of itself, and because it is at the center of other health and economic outcomes, Dr. Cogill explained.
A 2008 article series in the journal Lancet about “Maternal and child under-nutrition” “told us what” we need to do about nutrition, according to Dr. Cogill, but implementing organizations and others “need to tell us how.” Dr. Cogill said that through its Infant and Young Child Nutrition Project (IYCN) and other partnerships, USAID supports and implements country-led plans to improve nutrition.
Dr. Ciro Franco, country lead and global technical lead for maternal, newborn, and child health at Management Sciences for Health (MSH), described nutrition interventions that MSH implemented through the USAID Basic Support for Institutionalizing Child Survival (BASICS) project in two countries: Malawi and Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, for example, BASICS trained community health workers on a package of child health and nutrition interventions and assisted the Ministry of Health in the development of its national Integrated Community Case management manual. MSH is a nonprofit international health organization that works to close the gap between knowledge and action in public health.
Dr. Thomas Schaetzel, technical director of the IYCN Project, explained that agricultural production gains are important, but they do not necessarily translate into improved nutrition outcomes. Whether or not crops are food crops or cash crops, whether the food crops are nutritious and accessible to the poor, and the effect of all of these factors on food prices can all make a difference. “We want to do good, because we’re do-gooders,” he said, “but at least we should try to do no harm.”
To achieve the greatest nutritional impact from agricultural interventions, or just to make sure that agriculture programs do not have negative outcomes on nutrition, attention should be paid to at-risk groups from the earliest stages. To aid this process, IYCN is developing a nutritional impact assessment tool that helps agricultural program planners evaluate the impact that alternative approaches will have on at-risk groups, such as young children, pregnant women and girls aged 15 to 44.
The event was the fifth and final briefing in the series “New and Innovative Approaches to Maternal and Child Health,” co-hosted by the Global Health Council, PATH, and Management Sciences for Health. Bread for the World joined as a co-host for this particular briefing. The webinar will soon be posted online here, so check back soon.
 IYCN is USAID’s flagship project on infant and young child nutrition, led by PATH and implemented in partnership with CARE, the Manoff Group and University Research Co., LLC.