Food packets could save many starving children, group says

Even when foreign aid reaches starving children, the food that fills their stomachs may not be nutritious enough to save them from disease and death, a humanitarian group says.

More nutrition required, not just filling bellies

Even when foreign aid reaches starving children,the food that fills their stomachsmay not benutritious enough tosave them from disease and death, an international relief organization said Wednesday.

Médecins Sans Frontières, orDoctors Without Borders, called for expanded use of what is called ready-to-use food (RUF), ablend of suchingredients as milk powder, peanut butter,vegetable oil, sugar, vitamins and mineralsin individual packets designed toprovide all the nutrients a young child needs.

In food shorthand, the initials RUF mayeventually become as familiar as MREs, the"meals, ready to eat" carried by U.S. combat troops.

The doctors group, which won the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize,is launching a campaign under the sloganFood is Not Enough, asking donors, researchers, governments and international organizations tohelp provide the cash and know-how required to get RUF to those who need it.

But RUF packets cost more than the corn, wheat and soybeans oftenshippedto the hungry in Africa and elsewhere, and they face obstacles in Washington from policies intended to ensure thatU.S. aiddollars buys U.S. farm products.

Thegroup, known by the initials MSF, saidwide distribution of RUFpacketscouldprevent many of the estimatedfive million deathsa yearrelated to malnutrition in children under five.

"In Somalia, we are giving acutely malnourished kids packets of ready-to-use food and we see them gain weight and begin thriving within a couple of weeks," Dr. Gustavo Fernandez, MSF head of mission in Somalia, said in a statement.

Advocates say the packets have many virtues:

  • They can be prepared in many countries.
  • They are calorie-dense, tastyand easy on small stomachs.
  • They are easy to store, transportand use.
  • They don't require mothers to find clean water, which is often unavailable, or to gather firewood inplaces where they mayriskrape or death.

MSF said it has beenfighting malnutrition with RUF since such products became available in the late 1990s, treating more than 150,000 children with acute malnutrition in 22 countries in 2006.

RUFcomes inairtight foil packets that resist bacterialcontaminationandhave a long shelf life in hot climates, the group said.

In Niger,whereMSF is reaching more than 62,000 children with RUF supplements, the packetshave proved significantly more effective than the traditional approach of supplying fortified flours and cooking oil to mothers of young children,it said.

"It's not only about how much food children get, it's what's in the food that counts,"said Dr. Christophe Fournier, MSF's international council president.

"Without the right amounts of vitamins and essential nutrients in their diet, young kids become vulnerable to disease that they would normally be able to fight off easily."

U.S. barriers to distribution

Of 20 million young children estimated by the World Health Organization to sufferacute malnutrition at any giventime, MSFestimates that onlythree per cent will receive RUF in 2007, the statement said.

But looming in the background are U.S. policies on food distribution.

Speaking to reporters in Nairobi, Dr. Susan Sheperd, head of the MSF mission in Niger, said those policies could cost children's lives, the Associated Press reported.

TheUnited States, the world's biggest fooddonor,gives most of its food aid in the form of surplusU.S. crops or moneyprovided on the condition that it is spent buying U.S. products.

A bill to make aid more flexible is stalled in the U.S. Congress by politiciansdefending farm and shipping interests thatbenefit from the policies, AP said.

With a report from the Associated Press