What makes you feel optimistic about the field of nutrition today? I asked this question to a few people today. Bea Rogers, Professor at Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, leaned over to discuss her thoughts as we sat in a session on “building better nutrition programs”.
A nutrition economist with over 30 years of experience, Bea's response summarized the theme of this year’s ICN perfectly, “the focus is now on the how”.
In session after session I attended today, the same “how” questions were being discussed, vetted and dissected. How do we make an impact? For example, “MANA” - a multi-sector food and nutrition program in Columbia - found that strong leadership and good management were essential factors in the program’s success and, therefore, real levers to impact child undernutrition.
Sachets of protein
Dr. Tina van den Briel, Chief of WFP Nutrition Programs, described how new nutritionally fortified food products are being used more and more to reduce child undernutrition. She recounted a presentation by researchers from China who distributed small sachets of soy protein and micronutrient fortified powders to children after last year’s devastating earthquake. The results were “spectacular”, she said, with dramatic reductions in anemia over a three-month period.
Exciting news, indeed, particularly as Tina has worked so hard over the past few years to enrich the nutrition quality of WFP’s food basket. WFP’s nutrition improvement strategy affirms the organization's commitment to “feed better foods” particularly to children under two. It emphasizes the importance of providing the right foods to the right people – which includes products such as ready-to-use foods and micronutrient sprinkles, similar to the ones used in China.
Huge strides with the private sector
By looking inside the very large ICN Exhibit hall, it's clear the private sector has made huge strides in the nutrition world. Less than 20 years ago, nutritionists boycotted the ICN in Adelaide, Australia over the presence of multinational firms. Today, you are greeted by lively “stations” straight out of an industry fair hosted by Unilever, Pepsico, DSM, Danone, to name a few.
The participation of many of these private sector companies at the ICN however is not limited to the exhibit hall. Many are increasingly being viewed and - view themselves - as real players in the global fight against malnutrition. Paulus Verschuren, Director of Partnerships at Unilever, expressed his group's interest in early child nutrition and in exploring “how our brands can help child health”. As well, just this morning, Pepsico hosted a breakfast symposium on undernutrition with leading experts from the Gates Foundation, Save the Children, GAIN and Valid International, all sitting along side Pepsi reseachers and discussing new approaches to address global child undernutrition.
What has emerged in recent years, according to international nutrition expert Professor Ian Darnton-Hill, is a “far more civil and sophisticated dialogue” between the nutrition world and private sector companies. Ian cites the success of fortification efforts as helping foster this change and the recognition of the importance of partnerships. A “new paradigm is needed and welcomed”, he concludes, as he reflects on the minuscule reduction of global child undernutrition over the past 20 years.