06/06/2013 12:07 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2013

June 8, 2013: A Now or Never Moment on Nutrition

I'm willing to bet many people learned about hunger the same way I did -- from startling, desperate images on the news. Images of crisis and famine that made us feel sad, confused and powerless were somehow linked to the duty of eating our vegetables.

We grew to understand that in these desperate situations countries should ship food to help alleviate suffering caused by wars, political upheaval and lost harvests.

But this is just a fraction of the story. The real problem of undernutrition faced by many children and families doesn't photograph well and doesn't often make headlines.

New data in the Lancet today shows undernutrition is now responsible for almost half of all child deaths - that's 3.1 million children lost every year. No war, no flood, no coup necessary -- these are the children who fall through the cracks between food and nutrition, who constitute an epidemic that is marked more than anything by silence.

Yes, food is necessary to ensure good nutrition, but it is not enough. The diet of poor children often consists of starches like rice or millet, and lacks the vitamins and minerals necessary to ensure brains and bodies develop properly. Those who survive this constant deprivation can live with compromised immune systems and their cognitive and physical development can be permanently stunted, seriously inhibiting their individual potential and the long-term stability and growth of their families, communities and countries.

Perhaps the only thing that rivals the shocking individual and economic impact of chronic undernutrition is our collective neglect. Total development assistant directly focused on alleviating this trap of intergenerational suffering is a mere 1.4 percent of what is needed -- a global total of $US 139 million.

But at least now we all know. Now, we can get serious about saving these lives. We already know that global commitment and action on complex global health challenges will lead to progress. Political will and the power of vaccines combined to eradicate smallpox and are bringing us close to the end of polio. And after merely a decade of investment in the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, we are seriously talking about the end of all three diseases. But there is a catch -- by neglecting nutrition we have collectively failed our children in a very fundamental way. Millions of them do not receive the nourishment necessary to prevent or fight off these diseases and other leading killers of children like pneumonia and diarrhea.

On June 8, we have an opportunity to shatter the silence.

On the eve of the G8 Summit, governments, international agencies and private industry will meet in London for the Nutrition for Growth summit. It's a now or never moment, as all major players needed to accelerate progress on nutrition will be under the global spotlight. If leaders don't step forward with money on the table and a vision for the future, they will waste an opportunity that has been decades in making. And it's safe to say we won't have another chance like this for a long time.

There are no excuses; solutions to undernutrition are proven. Specific nutrition interventions -- such as encouraging breastfeeding and ensuring women and children can access essential vitamins and nutrients -- during the 1,000 days from the start of a woman's pregnancy until her child's 2nd birthday gives children the right start to grow up healthy.

Through the Scaling up Nutrition (SUN) movement, 16 countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East have created fully-costed plans to tackle nutrition at the country-level with these solutions and more.

To ensure we capitalize on this opportunity, advocacy organizations around the world including ACTION's partners in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and France have developed realistic, ambitious, targets for their governments to meet. And presidents, vice presidents and top ministers from countries who bear the burden of these deaths will be in attendance.

On June 8, we'll know if leaders from around the world are ready to rise to this challenge.
We still have a very long way to go, but we do not need to feel the hopelessness and powerlessness we felt as children watching famine on television. This is a fight we know we can win.

We have solutions, we can commit resources. If we are willing, we can stop these unnecessary deaths.

Kolleen Bouchane served with the 24th Infantry Division in Operation Continue Hope in Somalia in 1993-4 and is currently the Director of ACTION, a global partnership of advocacy organizations working to influence policy and mobilize resources to fight diseases of poverty and improve equitable access to health services.