Doctors Without Borders campaigns for better childhood nutrition

Having just observed Yom Kippur, Zoey Solomon knew what it felt like to be hungry.

But, as the 9-year-old walked through an exhibit Sunday depicting the lives of malnourished children from around the world, she still wrinkled her nose at a container of brown paste that smelled like peanut butter, as a doctor explained that children in other countries enjoy it and rely on it to keep them healthy.


"We fasted to observe Yom Kippur yesterday, and she was so hungry by noon," said Lorna Solomon, who brought her daughter to the weekend exhibit in Patterson Park, put on by Doctors Without Borders, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning humanitarian organization that works in 65 poor and blighted developing countries.

"I said, 'Imagine if that were every day,'" Solomon said, as she finished exploring the simulated therapeutic feeding center, a replica of what the group is currently using in East Africa. "So, that's what I wanted her to see today."


The Baltimore exhibit was part of a year-long Doctors Without Borders campaign tour called Starved for Attention. Doctors Without Borders argues that the U.S. government ships below-grade food to starving populations. The organization says that practice is especially problematic for children 4 and younger, the age group with the highest percentage of malnourished-related deaths every year.

"The U.S. is the world's largest donor to international countries, but the product that they're donating is low-quality and doesn't meet the nutritional needs of children," said Leo Ho, a pediatrician and medical coordinator for the Starved for Attention campaign.

Currently, the U.S. provides food aid in the form of soy and corn flour, which produces a cereal-like substance. Doctors Without Borders says the flour option is cheaper but lacks substantial nutritional value.

The pastelike substance, called Plumpy'nut, that Zoey encountered on her tour had a week's worth of nutrients, says Doctors Without Borders. The Starved for Attention campaign is lobbying for the U.S. to invest in more products like it — rich, therapeutic, supplementary food that they say allows doctors to nourish more starving children, faster. Supporters want the government's international aid food to be on par with what's offered in domestic programs.

"A young child in Somalia has the same nutritional needs as a child in Baltimore," Ho said. "If it's not good enough for our children, why are we sending it around the world? This is a double standard, and it's really sad."

The campaign is compiling a petition it will send to Congress to lobby for better food. So far, the group has collected more than 122,000 signatures on its trek from New York to Washington, including Zoey and Lorna Solomons'; it also exists online.

"I think this is a critical issue that people need to know about — that children are starving around the world," said Solomon, once a volunteer in the Peace Corps.

"If I ate peanut butter every day, it wouldn't taste good," Zoey added. "But it tastes good to them, because they're really hungry."