Roger Thurow has been a reporter for over 30 years, many of which were covering famine and hunger in Africa and in Europe. In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, he follows four women from India, Guatemala, Uganda, and a teen mother from Chicago while discussing the importance of getting the mother and child proper nutrition during the first 1,000 days of a baby’s life.
I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Thurow about his new book and the importance of those first 1,000 days.
Jason: You have been writing about hunger and famine for a long time. What drew you to covering that subject?
Thurow: It started with my career as a journalist. I was with the Wall Street Journal for 30 years; 20 as a correspondent. I was based mainly in Europe and then South Africa from 86 to 91. It was some of that reporting, particularly my time in South Africa, which got me more introduced to issues in Africa. Africa was such a big story because it was in the last years of apartheid and the increase of oppression by the white government. And then the post negotiations at the end of apartheid. South Africa was a fascinating time. I did quite a bit of traveling around Africa and that really got me into the issues of Africa, particularly to the issues of the human condition. Then I moved back to Europe and always with the Journal and was writing more about humanitarian and development issues. I was doing that when the famine of 2003 in Ethiopia hit. Then I started looking at hunger and agricultural issues. In the wake of 9/11 George W. Bush said before Congress, “My fellow Americans, I know you are asking the same questions that my administration is asking. Why do they hate us so much?” I was based in Zurich, Switzerland at the time. Again, writing about development and humanitarian issues. And I thought, oh, I have some ideas looking at consequences of American policies. I talked to the editors about it and they said follow up on that and see what you can come up with. What immediately jumped out or what I was drawn to was the impact of a crime bill which was domestic legislation. It had a big impact particularly on small farmers all over the world. Getting into that and seeing the hungriest people all over the world are farmers. And then seeing the shame of that oxymoron of the hungry farmer. And so, I wrote about that. Talking how the green revolution never came to Africa. Then in my career as a journalist, I was moving from place to place and from story to story. You kind of cover and say, “Okay, what’s next.” And that’s the story that stopped me cold, and it was what through ne back to the hunger story. In the 21rst century, this new millennium, the first crisis of the 21rst century, people are on the door front of starvation and kept alive by international food aid and a lot of it American. Food aid was rushing into the country. And it was like, how have we gotten to this stage. It is worse in the case of a number of people impacted than the Ethiopian famine of 84, 85 that brought on Live Aid and We Are The World, and this international hand-holding that never again something like this should happen. And then 19 or 20 years later, it was happening again and people are dying, unfortunately. There was morning shows and media ringing bells to bring attention, but more people were dying in absolute numbers. What are we doing? So, it was after that and writing I took on this issue. And then after the Journal and moving back to the States, I was writing about domestic hunger and social issues in the US while still doing things abroad and focusing on international and security issues. And that basically led me away from the Journal and just writing about this issue of hunger in the broader state of hunger in the 21st century and what are we doing to ourselves. That led me to writing a series of 3 books about hunger and to the First 1,000 Days and the importance of nutrition during pregnancy and to the 2nd birthday. And how nutrition is so crucial and not only for the individuals involved, but the effects ripple across time and through societies and across the world. A child starving somewhere is a child starving everywhere because the impact itself is perilous.
Jason: In reading about stunted children, you said once a stunted child grows up and has children, those children become stunted. Does stunting continue to pass on, or does it end with one child?
Thurow: Often times it becomes a generational thing. Primarily with the moms and the girls. If the moms are stunted from their time as children, they are physically smaller are likely to give birth to low weight children. Particularly in girls, when the girl becomes an adult, she is likely to give birth to a low weight child, and the cycle continues. Changes can be made from one child to the next. In the book, one mom in Guatemala, her first child was born small, but found herself pregnant again 3 years later. She felt that since her first child was small, she had to make sure the second child was not and asked what she can do. There is this nutrition and rehabilitation program hospital that started in her area of Guatemala. She signed up for that and she is more careful about what she is eating and she gave birth to a son and he is robust. And following him now that he is two years old, he is almost the same size as his sister both in terms of weight and height. Everyone marveled in the area and family and said, “Look at Jorge and how big he is.” The word spread about what you need to do in order to have healthy kids. And that’s the physical manifestation of it. But the true impact of malnutrition or hunger or lack of food is that the brain development is slowed. So, then there’s the lack of full development of the brain. And that comes out as a child grows up and goes to school. They don’t stay in school as long. They do not behave as well and become bored or frustrated. They drop out. And that impacts their productivity and labor.
Jason: I attended a meeting on nutrition at the local Boys and Girls Club and a gentleman stood up and said, “If I have a $1.50 to give my son to go to the store and buy something to eat, he’s going to buy junk food because that is what he can fill his belly with.” How are we able to convince low income families to not spend money on food that is cheap but would fill them up?
Thurow: That is a major obstacle. You are finding poverty no matter where you are. I was following these families in Chicago who are facing these decisions. They are receiving education from doulas, hospitals, and from social workers they are involved with and they’re like, “Okay, I get it in regards to nutrition. But, yeah, they are too expensive.?” So, that is a problem with the way our food system is. That over the past 20 to 30 years, fruits and vegetables prices have raised by a certain amount. Sugary foods, junk foods, snack foods; those prices have declined. They’re perpetually cheaper. Most families I meet that are on food stamps, their food doesn’t last a whole month. They last 2 or maybe 3 weeks. So, they are trying to stretch their food stamps out for a whole month. And when you do that, you are buying the cheapest food and that food is usually the least nutritious food. There are some healthy options, but that might be an educational component that people might need to be aware of. Government programs that promote healthy eating shouldn’t be cut, they should be strengthened. Policy makers and politicians need to be aware of this because our children here in the United States need to be started off with the best life possible. It isn’t just a critical problem over in places like Guatemala, but critical here in the United States.
Jason: In your book, the teen mom in Chicago has a boyfriend who wasn’t helping her with nutritional eating habits and being supportive. What can men do to help their partners makes sure the first two years of a child’s life gets off to a good start?
Thurow: One thing that became clear in Chicago and the other places is the critical and vital role dads play. In some places, the mother-in-law is very critical. For dads, when your wife or girlfriend is pregnant, or sisters or any women in your life, that’s a really critical time and she needs to be eating well. She needs rest. She needs security. The nutritional element during that time is critically important. There needs to be educational opportunities for moms, but also for the dads because they have to realize they need to be partners in this. There’s really critical choices made during this time. So, when shopping for whoever is pregnant, you are getting healthier items or cooking healthier foods. And stay away from the junk food or fast food when you’re buying for her. In Guatemala, the moms or wives are only getting X amount of dollars and saying, “I can only buy a certain amount of things.” They go through what they can buy on their shopping trips and it doesn’t amount to much. They are being educated on nutrition, but say “We appreciate being told about nutrition, but do you know how hard it is to have fresh fruits in the house, particularly when they’re not in season.” This information and knowledge is power, but that education and power need to be put into play. We need to capitalize on the nutrition front and makes sure moms and families are getting the nutrition they need.