Nourishing the Future: Taking a systems approach

November 16, 2021
UNICEF/Pirozzi

By Jordan Teague

The world is in the midst of the Nutrition Year of Action, with the U.N. Food Systems Summit behind us and the Nutrition for Growth Summit just ahead. Increased global attention to both nutrition and food systems, in the context of significant setbacks caused largely by the COVID-19 pandemic, make it more important than ever for food systems to focus on improving nutrition.

Last month, Bread for the World partnered with the Alliance to End Hunger and 1,000 Days to host a virtual side event at the 2021 Norman E. Borlaug International Dialogues, sponsored each year by the World Food Prize Foundation. The event, Nourishing the Future: Taking a Systems Approach, featured leaders in several sectors who are working to scale up effective nutrition actions and make swifter progress against malnutrition.

Bread President Rev. Eugene Cho welcomed presenters, noting, “In these challenging times, nothing could be more good, compassionate, and just than to work for a world that has no hunger or malnutrition.” He said global nutrition has emerged as an issue for bipartisan, cross-sectoral action. Recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and making progress on nutrition will take everyone working together. He said that webinar participants, along with others in the anti-hunger community, have exciting upcoming opportunities to make lasting change. One of these is Bread’s effort to win passage of the Global Malnutrition Prevention and Treatment Act (H.R. 4693/S. 2956), recently introduced in both the House and the Senate.

We were fortunate to hear from speakers on two panels. The first focused on food systems and nutrition in Kenya, a country that I have previously written about extensively. It featured speakers from several perspectives, all of whom agreed that smallholder farmers, who work plots of land smaller than about five acres and make up the majority of Kenyan farmers, are particularly critical to efforts to improve nutrition in sustainable ways. It is also important, said panelists, to bring together all stakeholders, or groups of people involved in or affected by the sector, to work collaboratively. Samson Kanai of Corteva Agriscience emphasized the importance of quality seeds in growing nutritious crops. Corteva provides these seeds to smallholder farmers and supports them in adopting and using sustainable agricultural practices.

Smallholder farmers feed their entire communities. Their successful harvests not only enable them to support their families, but, said Brendah Wekesa of the One Acre Fund, can also help lower the prices of healthy foods so their neighbors can better afford to buy them. Fellow panelist Gladys Mugambi agreed: “We need to ensure that we take care of the food from the farm to the table” to make sure that the food system is producing nutritious foods. Mugambi was recently elected co-chair of the Executive Committee of the SUN (Scaling Up Nutrition) Movement, a 10-year-old organization that brings together more than 60 countries committed to scaling up effective nutrition actions that will reduce malnutrition. She also serves as the Focal Point (a role that includes leadership, coordination, and more) for the SUN Movement in the Kenyan government.

“Any solutions in rural farming and agriculture have to focus as much on nutritional outcomes as on agricultural yields,” said Kathy Spahn, CEO of the nonprofit Helen Keller International (HKI), on the second panel of the event. She noted that HKI is extending its work beyond agricultural production to encompass the entire food cycle, which also includes food distribution, processing, and marketing. One way of improving nutrition is to preserve the nutritional value of perishable foods such as fruits and vegetables longer by using new food storage techniques. In HKI’s experience, said Spahn, communities, by using strategies such as this,  “can produce healthy foods that are profitable to the producers but are still affordable to the poorest consumers.”

Fortification is another effective way of boosting the nutritional value of the foods that families are purchasing and eating. The extra step of adding nutrients such as vitamins and minerals to staple foods typically takes place during processing.

Dr. Cecilia Gamboa-Cerdas, the SUN Focal Point in the government of Costa Rica, explained that her country has had a robust food fortification program that, along with other nutrition programs in the health care system and safety net programs, has contributed to reducing micronutrient deficiencies. There has been so much progress that Costa Rica was able to announce that malnutrition is no longer a national public health issue. Gamboa-Cerdas also gave a call to action to donors and partners, urging them to allocate a greater share of assistance to nutrition. She explained that although there have been many achievements, “resources for nutrition are actually very scarce.”

Another panelist was Dr. Jim Barnhart, the Assistant to the Administrator of the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). He is also the Deputy Coordinator for Development with Feed the Future. He noted that the global food system has been failing women and children, with continuing high levels of malnutrition: “Four in five children around the world haven’t received adequate diets. If that’s not a call to action, I don’t know what is.”

In September, USAID announced its new Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Systems for Nutrition, an initiative led by Tufts University. This Innovation Lab, funded at $25 million, will conduct research and capacity building aimed at achieving better nutrition through the food system. Barnhart concluded by saying, “You don’t only need to think about feeding people; you need to think about nourishing people.”

The webinar’s keynote address by Kim Cernak, Managing Director of the Eleanor Crook Foundation, focused on Nourish the Future, a five-year proposal for the U.S. government to scale up lifesaving nutrition interventions. Read Bread's summary of the proposal here. The solutions outlined by previous panelists are lifted up as part of an innovative roadmap to improve nutrition via both the health and food systems in nine focus countries. The U.S. government’s adoption of Nourish the Future would save the lives of 2 million children, improve the lives of 500 million women and children, and reduce malnutrition by 50 percent in those nine countries.

Cernak noted, “We’ve been presented with what might be the greatest opportunity in a generation to see action on global malnutrition by the U.S. government. Bipartisan support for global malnutrition programs has probably never been higher.”

Ending malnutrition will take all of us, working together. As all the speakers at Nourishing the Future: Taking a Systems Approach noted, nutrition must be front and center in our global, regional, and local food systems. Nourish the Future would provide an effective tool for the U.S. government in the fight against malnutrition.

You can watch a recording of Bread’s Borlaug Dialogues side event, Nourishing the Future: Taking a Systems Approach, here.

Jordan Teague is interim director of policy analysis & coalition building with Bread for the World.

Recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and making progress on nutrition will take everyone working together.

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