I bet most people in the U.S. wish they ate better. More fruits and vegetables. Fewer donuts, chocolates, and—my favorite—hamburgers. The problem isn’t that we’re not getting enough to eat or all the essential vitamins and minerals. It’s that we’re getting too much of the things we don’t really need.
If you’re poor in Africa, you have the opposite problem. Your diet choices are often so limited—both in quantity and diversity—that you can end up shortchanged not just on calories but also essential nutrients, putting you at risk for severe infections, chronic medical conditions, and developmental problems.
In Tanzania, where I just visited as part of my trip to Africa, a typical meal for a poor family is a bowl of cornmeal with boiled vegetables. Meat is a luxury for most families, too expensive to buy except for special occasions. While these poor families don’t starve, they’re not getting enough to eat or enough of the vitamins and minerals we take for granted in rich countries. That’s why 42 percent of the children under 5 in Tanzania are stunted and many children suffer from deficiencies of vitamin A, iodine, and other key nutrients.
The lack of Vitamin A, for example, is the leading cause of childhood blindness in developing countries like Tanzania. It also compromises a child’s immunity, leaving them unable to fight common childhood infections such as measles or diarrhea.
One of the most effective ways to get kids the nutrients they need is to fortify staple foods to make them more nutritious. Bread, cereals, salt, and dozens of other everyday food items can be packed with essential vitamins and minerals, ensuring children get the nutrition they need. In rich countries, food fortification has been around for decades and we’ve seen the health of our children improve.
Now, fortification efforts are catching on in poorer countries. In 2011, the government of Tanzania passed a new food fortification law, which requires the country’s wheat flour millers and cooking oil producers to fortify their products. Iron, folic acid, and zinc are now added to wheat flour and cooking oil is made more nutritious with vitamin A. Working through our partners, Helen Keller International and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, our foundation helped cooking oil factories in Tanzania get equipped with new systems to begin fortifying their oil. Every day, millions of families across Tanzania are now using the fortified oil to prepare their meals.
What’s remarkable about the fortification effort is how cost effective it is. For just pennies a year, a child can get the vitamin A they need for their healthy growth and development.
That is one of the best and smartest investments we can make in a child’s future.