05/19/2010 04:40 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Nutrition Matters

Today's release of the Obama administration's Feed the Future implementation strategy will confirm what many in the global public health world have known for a long time - nutrition is not just important but perhaps the most critical factor to ensure a healthy life. One only has to travel to Liberia, a small West African nation, to see first hand the devastating health and nutrition challenges that, sadly, impact women and children most acutely.

Today one out of ten Liberian women is under-nourished and six out of ten women have anemia. For children and infants the figures are even worse: one out of three children is stunted by the age of two. Moreover, the Liberian government estimates that anemia - affecting more than half of Liberia's women - will result in a loss of $150 million in productivity over the coming ten years if no action is taken to address it.

These staggering statistics remain despite the fact that the government of Liberia, under the historic presidency of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has made great strides in rebuilding Liberia's health system, not only back to the level it was before the war, but also to serve as a model for other post-conflict nations. The Liberian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare is rebuilding a new health workforce by setting high standards to increase access and equity for all, enhancing training and health education, and implementing a performance based health sector.

But these efforts, in addition to those in education, security, and agriculture, will not succeed if people are hungry. Despite progress in the health system, maternal and child mortality rates continue to be among the worst in the world. And there is no reason to believe they will improve until women, especially those who are pregnant or lactating, and young children, especially those under the age of two, have access to high impact nutrition interventions such as optimal breastfeeding, maternal nutrition, and control of micro-nutrient deficiencies.

Yet nutrition is more than a health issue and must be linked to programs in education and agriculture for maximum impact. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated recently, "[nutrition] is an issue that cuts across every sector." This is why today's release of the Obama administration's Feed the Future implementation strategy, happening at the Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security, hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in Washington, DC, is most welcome and timely. It is especially fitting that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is joining USAID Administrator Raj Shah and others to mark this release, given Liberia's potential to realize the goals of this effort.

Feed the Future is a $3.5 billion hunger and food security initiative to improve agricultural systems and focus on moving nutritious, affordable food from farms to markets to the mouths of children. The Obama administration recognizes that nutrition is the intersection between Feed the Future and the Global Health Initiative (the administration's six-year, $63 billion effort to strengthen the health systems of developing countries).

Linking our nation's investments in nutrition has the opportunity to increase the U.S.'s return on investments in global health. More importantly it will improve the health and well being of the people we seek to serve. These twin initiatives, Feed the Future and GHI, will ensure that best nutrition and feeding practices are no longer the sole responsibility of the health professionals but are also shared with farmers who are bravely rebuilding Liberia's once flourishing agriculture system, and that parents, especially young mothers, will understand the nutritional value of breastfeeding and a diverse diet and be able to implement positive feeding practices.

As a dedicated professional with over thirty years of experience in global health, I welcome the strong statements shared today. But I have heard strong statements before. I hope this time change has come.