06/07/2013 10:41 am ET Updated Aug 07, 2013

Food for Thought for World Leaders

On a recent trip to India, I joined a dozen mothers and their babies at a community meeting in a slum south of New Delhi. We sat on the floor and talked about what they wanted for their children. Their answers were what you'd expect from any mother--they wanted their children to be healthy, happy, to go to school, to do well in life.

But they had a more immediate concern, raised by a community health worker who organized the meetings. Their babies were malnourished, not growing properly, more prone to illness, and weak enough that their very lives were at risk.

They had received advice on breastfeeding and the best foods to introduce after six months. One mother with a severely malnourished child said the group had convinced her to seek treatment at a hospital. Our local Save the Children staff explained to me how intimidating that can be for women who have never attended school themselves and have little experience with accessible health services they can trust.

And yet, without early, basic outreach around nutrition, millions of babies like those I met will never achieve their mothers' greatest hopes for them.

One in four children worldwide is malnourished, and in developing nations the figure is one in three. Every hour of every day, 300 children die of malnutrition and 1 in 4 children, or nearly 170 million children are stunted growth- and therefore facing permanent cognitive and physical deficiencies.

This an urgent problem that hasn't received the attention it deserves. This is why we recently released a new report, "Food for Thought," showing how critical proper nutrition is in the first 1,000 days -between a woman's pregnancy and her child's second birthday. Ensuring good nutrition, such as proper iron intake, during the 1,000 days window could mean a greater ability to learn and earn a living later in life. When that window ends, the effects of chronic malnutrition are irreversible and hamper children throughout their lives and into adulthood.

New data shows that "malnourished children score 7 percent lower on math tests, are 19 percent less likely to be able to read a simple sentence by age 8. They are 12 percent less likely to write a simple sentence, and 13 percent less likely to stay in the right grade at school."

The cognitive impairment of stunting impacts the not only the child, but the overall economy as well. Studies have linked nutrition at this stage to wages earlier in life - and our report shows this could lower GDP as well. Addressing malnutrition, particularly during the first 1,000 days of life, is essential for addressing child and maternal deaths, a child's ability to learn and thrive, and to the earning potential of the individual and the nation.

In other words, malnutrition is a major barrier to both personal and economic growth. Helping children reach their full potential is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.

There are tangible, proven and relatively simple ways to address this problem. Scaling up a select package of 13 direct nutrition interventions (DNIs), identified by The Lancet in 2008, could prevent a quarter of child deaths and lower the prevalence of stunting by a third. Evidence shows that these basic, low-cost DNIs (that range from breastfeeding support, to getting children the right vitamins and nutrients, to improving hygiene practices) are the most cost effective of any development intervention; saving lives and investing the in future potential of children and the country.

On June 8, the UK government will bring together business leaders, scientists, government officials and nonprofit leaders for the first-ever nutrition pledging conference - "Nutrition for Growth" - an opportunity for investing in the future of children. This is a major moment for every mother and child around the world facing insufficient nutrition and for nations with high malnutrition burdens. While there has been tremendous progress in reducing global extreme poverty and other targets, known as the Millennium Development Goals, malnutrition remains a hidden crisis.

Almost 1,000 days ago, the U.S. and Ireland launched the 1,000 Days Call to Action that has raised awareness of the importance of maternal and child nutrition for long-term development outcomes; catalyzed unprecedented global and partner government commitments to addressing nutrition for mothers and children; and began integrating nutrition across agriculture, health and other sectors.

In the last 1,000 days, over 35 countries have committed to scaling up nutrition by joining the Scaling-Up Nutrition movement.

I look forward to hearing the U.S. and Ireland renew their commitment to the 1,000 Days Call to Action on June 8, and hope that the U.S. will recommit to this initiative by announcing a financial commitment and a stunting target as part of a package of commitments.

We as civil society organizations stand ready and committed to helping the U.S. and others in following through on moving the nutrition agenda forward. Malnutrition deserves not just the focused attention of one meeting, but an ongoing commitment. It's a "silent crisis" - one without dramatic moments or political profile - but one that is critical to the well being of children around the globe.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction to coincide with the UK government's summit on addressing nutrition and hunger in developing countries, set to take place in London on June 8. To see all the posts in the series, click here. For more information on InterAction, click here. And follow the conversation on Twitter with hashtag #Nutrition4Growth.