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Early Nutrition Key to Reducing Poverty

Report finds the first 1000 days of life influence physical and mental development

A Nigerian woman cooks millet paste as children eat breakfast from a shared bowl in the village of Tamou, 60 kilometers outside Niamey, Niger, Feb 2010 (file photo)
A Nigerian woman cooks millet paste as children eat breakfast from a shared bowl in the village of Tamou, 60 kilometers outside Niamey, Niger, Feb 2010 (file photo)

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A new report highlights a brief period of early childhood as the most critical time to fight hunger -- and also reduce poverty.

The 2010 Global Hunger Index report was released Monday by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). It notes that, in recent years, experts have concluded that undernourishment between conception and a child's second birthday can have serious and long-lasting impacts.

Children who are undernourished during this approximately 1,000-day window can be physically stunted, and they are more likely to get sick and die than well-fed children. Preventing hunger allows children to develop both physically and mentally.

"They will be more likely to perform well in school," says IFPRI's Marie Ruel. "They will stay in school longer. And then at adulthood, IFPRI has actually demonstrated that children that were better nourished have higher wages, by a pretty large number, by 46 percent."

That means the productivity of a nation's future generations depends in a large part on the first 1,000 days of life, Ruel adds.

"This is why we're all on board on focusing on those thousand days to improve nutrition," she says. "After that, the damage is done and is highly irreversible."

The data on nutrition and childhood development has been slowly coming together for decades. But Ruel says scientific consensus alone will not solve the problem.

"It's not enough that nutritionists know you have to intervene then, if we don't have the politicians on board," she says, "and also the...people that implement [programs] in the field."

Ruel says there are encouraging signs that politicians and implementers are beginning to get on board. Many major donors and the United Nations are targeting hunger-relief programs at pregnant women and young children. They focus on improving diets or providing micronutrient supplements. They improve access to prenatal care and encourage exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a child's life.

Ruel says in the 1980s Thailand was able to reduce child undernourishment by recruiting a large number of volunteers to travel the countryside teaching about health and nutrition.

"They really did very active promotion of diversity in the diet and good eating habits," she says. "So they were providing more food to people, but also educating people on how to use them, and also educating people on how to feed their young children."

Ruel says countries may take different approaches to reducing child undernutrition. But she says nations will not make progress fighting hunger and poverty until they begin to focus on those critical first thousand days.

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