The First 1000 Days

Every Mother Counts’ Q&A with author, Roger Thurow

Roger Thurow is a senior fellow on global food and agriculture at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. After three decades as a journalist for The Wall Street Journal and 20 years as a foreign correspondent in Africa and Europe, he witnessed enough hunger and poverty to write a book. In fact, he wrote three1. His newest book, “The First 1000 Days, A Crucial Time for Mothers and Children — And The World” (Public Affairs May 3, 2016) was released last month. Thurow calls these three books his ‘real-life hunger games trilogy.’

The First 1000 Days references the time period that includes pregnancy and the first two years of a child’s life and The First 1000 Days multimedia project2. Thurow’s new book chronicles pregnant mothers, babies and malnutrition in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Thurow talked with Every Mother Counts about maternal health, malnutrition and helping children achieve greatness.

Every Mother Counts: The book illustrates how the first 1000 days sets the foundation for all the days that follow. Why did you decide to dedicate an entire book to this time period?”

Thurow: I think the solution to solving global hunger starts during those first 1000 days. They’re the most important time for individual human development in a person’s life. They set in motion a child’s baseline health, immune system, their intellectual and physical development, their ability to learn, reach their potential and be productive throughout life. It establishes their potential productivity and earning capacity and ability to support their own families someday. It impacts their health and lives far into adulthood.

I wrote this book because millions of woman face real hunger that impacts their health during pregnancy and the health of their children and communities. We know that when you improve a mother’s nutrition status during pregnancy, you make a direct, positive impact on her life, but you also improve the lives of future generations. One in four children in the world are stunted (prevented from growing and developing properly). That’s a life sentence for underachievement. We have to ask, ‘what are we doing to ourselves? What are we doing to the world?’

Every Mother Counts: You talk a lot in the book about the economic and social consequences of neglecting nutrition for mothers and babies, but I love what you wrote about consequences that are immeasurable.

Thurow: Those are the things a child might have accomplished if they’d been well nourished that would have benefitted all of us. A poem not written. A song not sung. A gadget not invented. A building not designed. An idea not formed. An innovation not nurtured. A cure not discovered. This lost chance of greatness for one child becomes a lost chance for all of us.

Every Mother Counts: How are nutrition, maternal and child health linked with broader social and community issues?

Thurow: There are so many physical, cultural and social factors that contribute to a mom’s health and her baby’s development during pregnancy. Nutrition is a huge part of that, but it’s not enough to just think about it as food. You also have to consider everything that supports nutrition like the quality of a mother’s drinking water, her access to sanitation facilities and her understanding about hygiene and the importance of keeping food clean and safe. You have to consider the total environment in which the mom is pregnant.

The book includes the story of Jessica in Chicago who was 16 and a sophomore in high school. While I was following her through her 1000 days, there was this huge escalation of violence on the South side of Chicago. Jessica was enrolled in a Healthy Mother program and was trying to implement everything she’d learned about pregnancy, nutrition and exercise. She was motivated to do her best for her baby, but it’s hard to go for a daily walk when there are people with guns on your street. It’s hard to avoid junk food when there isn’t anywhere to buy fresh fruits and veggies. People think ‘food deserts’ are all about lack of access to food, but wherever we see a food desert, there’s also an education desert, a jobs desert, a security desert, an infrastructure desert, a health desert. The success, development, growth and prosperity of an economy and community all depend on what’s going on in the first 1000 days because if children can’t develop cognitively and physically, then they won’t be able to make the essential social contributions the world and every community needs.

Every Mother Counts: You write that in many parts of the world, hoping that their child wlll be ‘great’ or a leader isn’t something many mothers do. Can you explain why not?

Thurow: I tell the story about a midwife in Uganda who tells her pregnant patients, “Your child can achieve great things. Your child could be a leader, maybe even a president, but it starts with what you eat now.” For most of these mothers, that’s a preposterous idea. Their goal isn’t greatness. It’s mere survival. But as the moms learn more about nutrition, each realizes that her child’s ability to fulfill her aspirations starts during her pregnancy. That’s pretty profound.

Every Mother Counts: What role does gender inequity play in nutrition during pregnancy?

Thurow: Gender discrimination is a huge factor. In many cultures, women eat last and eat least. In India I saw young pregnant mothers scraping whatever food was left after the rest of the family ate. I asked mothers in Guatemala what they purchased at the market. They knew what they were supposed to buy to make sure they and their children got the nutrients they needed, but they were entirely dependent on their husbands to give them the money. Once we educate fathers and families that it’s fundamentally important for the future of that child, their family and the greater community if everybody gets off to a good start in life — that’s when we see a shift in behavior.

Roger Thurow’s books are available on Amazon.com. Log on to The Chicago Council on Global Affairs website to learn more about the First 1000 Days project.

1.ENOUGH: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty (Public Affairs, (PublicAffairs; 2010) and

The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change (Public Affairs, 2013.

2 The First 1000 Days is a project in partnership with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs to bring attention to global hunger, poverty and malnutrition in the 21st Century

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