Heroes Inspire Hope for Nutrition
On World Food Day, meet 7 cultivators of hope fighting the pandemic’s nutrition crisis
One of USAID’s partners recently asked me ‘What keeps you up at night during this pandemic?’ Unfortunately, the answer was easy — we face the possibility of losing over a decade of progress in improving nutrition for mothers and children.
Even before the pandemic, undernutrition was causing 45 percent of deaths of children under age 5. For those children who survive malnutrition, their cognitive and physical development has been compromised, undermining their futures.
The projections are grim. The first analyses by the Standing Together for Nutrition consortium indicate the potential of an additional 6.7 million children suffering from wasting, the deadliest form of malnutrition, and a decrease in coverage of critical nutrition services, resulting in 130,000 additional child deaths in 2020.
However, projections are not destiny.
What keeps me hopeful is hearing remarkable stories from the field about how USAID and its partners are adapting programs in real time. As we commemorate World Food Day this year, read about a few of our Nutrition Heroes who are #CultivatingHope to stop the legacy of this pandemic from becoming a generation of children who lose their lives and future potential to malnutrition.
When Affiong Williams started her business, ReelFruit, she made a commitment to employ youth, sell nutritious snack products, and source her raw materials from smallholder producers, with a vision to use her business to reduce hunger and poverty in her community. As COVID-19 forced the shutdown of markets, international borders, and transport systems, bringing that vision to life seemed impossible. But Affiong and her team have shown remarkable resilience in weathering the ripple effects of the crisis.
They are building off the work they began pre-pandemic to strengthen and grow a resilient fruit value chain in Nigeria, the core of which depends on smallholder producers. Affiong’s pivots in the face of the pandemic have guaranteed a market for smallholder producers, providing them with much needed income while also decreasing food waste of these highly perishable items.
Phillip Makhumula has committed his life to advancing the delivery of essential vitamins and minerals through fortification of everyday foods, such as cereals and oils. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, he traveled across Africa sharing his food fortification expertise with governments, international NGOs, and UN agencies. Large scale food fortification serves a vital role in ensuring access to essential vitamins and minerals, especially in staple foods that consumers prioritize when their ability to purchase food is limited, as seen with the pandemic. Despite travel restrictions, Phillip continues his mission. He provides remote supervision to monitor food fortification practices and builds up the skills of local fortification specialists to take this work forward.
“Maximizing the nutrient content of existing diets is of the utmost importance for survival,” explains Phillip. “If I and other fortification program officers can do our part, people will surely benefit, especially during COVID times.”
Isabella Hwinzela Bigendako
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically disrupted essential nutrition services, such as breastfeeding counseling. Breastfeeding provides infants with essential nutrients and immune system support to fight infections. Over 820,000 young lives are lost each year due to suboptimal breastfeeding.
In Tanzania, Isabella Hwinzela Bigendako has dedicated the past decade of her life to teaching mothers in her community the importance of exclusive breastfeeding. She also mentors her fellow community health workers to equip them with the knowledge and skills to help more mothers overcome barriers to breastfeeding. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Isabella’s health facility established protocols to reduce COVID-19 transmission with adaptations to breastfeeding counseling services so that more women can safely nourish their babies for a healthier future.
For Tarig Mekkawi, a medical doctor and public health specialist for USAID partner UNICEF in Syria, the shutdown of essential nutrition services to treat acute malnutrition has been a huge concern for a country already struggling with conflict.
UNICEF scaled up nutrition services and pivoted them to include COVID-19 protections, such as personal protective equipment, so they can safely treat children for acute malnutrition. UNICEF and its doctors like Tarig have also started remote infant and young child feeding programs to ensure access to life-saving nutrition while limiting potential exposure to the virus.
Shela Nicodemus has been a Food Technologist intern with Rumi & Daughters Co Ltd., a Tanzanian processor of nutritious foods, since January. Just as she was adjusting to her new role, the Ministry of Health announced the first cases of COVID-19 in the country. Despite fears for her health, safety, and ability to do her job during a pandemic, Shela provided technical support to install food processing machines, implement best production practices, and develop a new, nutritious porridge for infants. Her efforts paid off. Despite the challenges of coronavirus, the work has continued on schedule and Rumi & Daughters has introduced the new porridge to the market.
“I am very glad to be part of the new product development team,” said Shela. “As a young Tanzanian woman, I am very proud to support the local food industry in the production of safe and nutritious food to combat malnutrition.”
Rima Thami has been a Village Model Farmer in Nepal since 2015, when she participated in a USAID training with nearly 4,000 other model farmers. Rima provides advice, agricultural inputs, and support to her community, including a homestead food production group, helping them grow nutritious vegetables in their home gardens.
As Nepal imposed a nationwide lockdown in March due to COVID-19, Rima coordinated with the local municipality office and obtained nutrient-rich vegetable seeds. Her group established a plant nursery during the lockdown by following safety measures like the use of masks, social distancing, and handwashing. She connected her group with a local cooperative and a local collector to sell their nutrient-rich orange-fleshed sweet potatoes and other crops. Rima also helped group members use solar dryers to preserve surplus production. Rima’s actions have led to an increase in her community’s supply of nutritious foods and incomes from vegetable sales.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit vulnerable groups very hard, especially the millions of refugees who have fled violence and crises in their homelands. As these groups seek safety in nearby countries, they face closed businesses, movement restrictions, and higher food prices.
In Jordan, half a million Syrian refugee families still have enough to eat with the help of USAID partners and humanitarians like Hussam Ghaleb, who works for the World Food Program in Jordan. Hussam helps Syrian refugees obtain monthly food rations — food that will help keep them healthy, nourished, and strong so they can fight the virus. For Hussam, helping people in crisis is personal: “I come from a country that has been in conflict since before I was born, and I’ve seen what conflict does to people’s lives. And I know how humanitarian aid helps people get back on their feet.”
About the Author
Shawn Baker is USAID’s Chief Nutritionist.