With worldwide attention on the Olympics, soccer star David Beckham hopes that the Games will help him score interest in an international problem: child stunting. In his capacity as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Beckham -- whose "ball bending" skills were popularized in the film Bend it Like Beckham -- called for an end to this "silent" poverty crisis so that children could be the real "winners of the Games."
What is stunting? It's when a child's height is low for his or her age. When a child's growth is stunted that's an indicator of chronic deprivation such as malnutrition which negatively impacts development. Child stunting can also signal impaired brain function.
While stunting is something few lay people know about, UNICEF hopes to make it a global priority. When Americans learn about stunting, they may naturally assume the phenomenon is limited to developing nations, that it doesn't come homegrown. Here, you don't find kwashiorkor (the protein deficiency that contributes to the distended bellies of its victims). The U.S. has made impressive progress in fighting hunger over the decades.
Is there child stunting here in the U.S.? Absolutely. According to Dr. Deborah Frank, the founder of Children's Health Watch and the Director of Grow Clinic for Children:
"The incidence of child stunting is notable, particularly in light of how avoidable it should be in our rich nation. While there is no comprehensive national data, CDC nutritional surveillance of children participating in government programs such as WIC and Maternal Child Health found that among those under age one, about 8-9 percent exhibited stunting. The average rate masks racial differences. In 2010 the CDC found 10.7 percent of black children, 8.8 percent of white children and 8 percent of Hispanic children under age one suffered stunting. The first year of life is when the baby's brain should increase 2.5 times in size and it takes good nutrition to get there. So these rates cannot be ignored. By age 4, the rates of stunting diminish to about 4 percent but that does not mean we should worry less. The estimates exclude children who are untouched by these health programs so may be at higher risk; and, in the future, if Congress cuts these and other programs, that could increase the number of children at risk."
Child stunting in the U.S. is a surprise. Its implications demand attention. Yet, the possibility that the incidence of stunting will grow should not surprise. The nation's poverty rate is expected to reach levels not seen since the 1960s. Very young children are the age group with the highest rates of poverty and the nutritional deprivation termed food insecurity (what front line workers and parents call hunger). Yet, as the needs of children increase, budget outlays for them are decreasing. According to an Urban Institute report :
In 2011, federal outlays on children fell by $2 billion, dropping from $378 billion in 2010 to $376 billion in 2011. This is the first time spending on children has fallen since the early 1980s...
From 2011 to 2022, federal outlays are projected to grow by almost $1 trillion, but children gain almost nothing from this growth.
When a rich nation allows stunting -- and other child development problems -- to prevail, it may reflect lack of awareness or complacency about the problem. Fortunately, a number of media efforts intend to draw public attention to the variety of challenges our nation's children face. For example:
- Sesame Street created a hungry Muppet, Lily, for a special program devoted to helping parents and children understand and cope with food pantries and food insecurity. The fact that there was a need to recognize Food Stamps in Elmo's World led a New York Times writer to observe: "It's no shocker that "Sesame Street" teaches children about healthy eating, or even that it might talk about hunger in the abstract... But when the average American throws away 33 pounds of food a month, Elmo and Big Bird shouldn't need to help a child worried about being hungry for anything more than an extra cookie."
- American Birthright is a multimedia initiative which seeks to reframe the way early child health and development is viewed. American Birthright, through its spring 2013 documentary and related materials, "explores how a strong start for all our kids leads not only to better individual life course outcomes (learning, earning and physical and mental health) but also to a healthier, safer, better educated and more prosperous and equitable America."
- American Winter is a documentary feature film that "follows the personal stories of families struggling in the aftermath of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Years after the recession began, millions of families are struggling to meet their basic needs, and many formerly middle class families are finding themselves in financial crisis, and needing assistance for the first time in their lives." The documentary, expected to be released later in 2012, captures the voices of children themselves.
Ours is a nation with an enviable standard of living. Still, you find child stunting, family homelessness, and school drop-out, among other symptoms of poverty. We need to say it like Beckham and give voice to fixable problems. Our presidential candidates, when they step up to the podium, could take home the gold with shout outs about plans to invest in our children.