The Critical First 1,000 Days of Life

By Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo and Lucy Martinez Sullivan

A thousand days.

How crucial is that time frame to our ordinary lives? When we go about our daily routines, a thousands days –nearly three years — can easily just pass us by, quietly folding into the previous thousand days and on to the next.

But your first 1,000 days are probably the most critical in your entire life. You might not learn to read and write as you would during your first 1,000 days of school, but the nutrition you receive from the time you are conceived until almost your third birthday may well decide how you do in school, and beyond.

According to the annual Global Nutrition Report, which was released this week, annual GDP losses from problems related to malnutrition average 11 percent in Asia and Africa–greater than the loss experienced during the 2008-2010 financial crisis. So this burden doesn’t just fall on children, it falls on entire societies. And yet, despite all this, less than one percent of global development assistance is devoted to nutrition.

Unfortunately, today nearly 200 million children under the age of five around the world are developmentally stunted as a result of chronic undernourishment during this critical window. Stunting is a technical term. These are not the starving children that you see during famines. If you’re measuring only in calories, they might be getting “enough” to eat. But they are not getting the right nutrients at the right times. The result is irreversible physical and cognitive impairment. Neither their bodies nor their brains will ever reach their full potential.

It can be a vicious cycle. Stunting is often associated with lower achievements in school, which means lower income over a child’s lifetime, making it harder to break out of poverty. So poverty, and thus malnutrition, return for the next generation.

Investing more is the first important step in breaking this cycle. Every dollar spent preventing malnutrition delivers $16 in return.

In the coming weeks, Congress will be in the position to further global nutrition goals by providing $230 million for 2017 in its annual foreign aid funding bill. Congress should also pass the Global Food Security Act, which will guide programs that help developing countries grow more of the food their people need and ensure that nutrition is prioritized in this effort.

Investing in nutrition means not just making sure children receive the right nutrition but also educating their families and ensuring they have the means to incorporate nutritious food in their diets.

Food problems often stem from money problems. Small farmers need access to markets as part of an expansion of livelihoods so their families can afford to buy food when even when drought or other problems mean it cannot be grown.

We must invest in nutrition to ensure that all children are able to reach their fullest potential. The impact will go far beyond their children’s lives as it can increase resilience and break the cycle of poverty, benefiting families, communities and the economic health of entire nations for generations to come.

The Sustainable Development Goals agreed to by world leaders call for an end to malnutrition in the world by 2030. We have the resources and the knowledge to get there. It all depends on those critical 1,000 days.

Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo is President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States, assisting poor and marginalized communities in more than 100 countries.

Lucy Martinez Sullivan is Executive Director of 1,000 Days, a leading nonprofit organization working in the U.S. and around the world to improve nutrition and ensure women and children have the healthiest first 1,000 days.

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