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  • VIDEO + Transcript: Christie Vilsack on Dairy's Role in Global Education

    By Luke Waring June 29, 2017

    Christie Vilsack has traveled to 20 countries in four years, seeing first-hand that “children can’t learn if they can’t eat.”

    Editor's Note: "Dairy Nutrition: An Engine for Economic Growth,” was held May 10-11 in Boise, co-sponsored by the U.S. Dairy Export Council and United Dairymen of Idaho.

    Below are some conference highlights, including:

    • A video Q&A with Christie Vilsack, a former senior advisor for international education at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
    • A transcript of Christie Vilsack’s keynote speech.
    • A video message to the conference from USDEC President and CEO Tom Vilsack, husband of Christie Vilsack. 

    Dairy for Global Nutrition and USDEC fully support The International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and other global nutritional principles set forth by the World Health Organization, the Codex Alimentarius, and UNICEF. For additional coverage, see Dairy for Global Nutrition and United Dairymen of Idaho.

    Q&A with Christie Vilsack on the role of dairy in global nutrition

    Transcript of Christie Vilsack's keynote address

    Thanks, Karianne, and thanks to the Idaho Dairy Farmers for being here and all of my new family at USDEC who did all the logistics for getting me here today.  I am halfway around the world from my husband who wishes he could be here but he's in Japan representing Dairy Farmers there and figuring out export opportunities.  He doesn't quite know what time it is so he just emailed me to see how my remarks went. 

    I really am proudest of all the things that Karianne said about me being a teacher. Education has really been the important part of everything that I have done in my life.  I just want to start off by saying that.  I also appreciate being invited here because I've learned so much about dairy in the past 24 hours. I'm a teacher but I'm also a perpetual student. I've been going to school since I was five-years-old and one of the reasons that I wanted to be here all day yesterday is because I'm an experiential learner. So getting to go to a dairy farm   for the first time in my life, even though I've lived in rural America my entire life, was very exciting. Then coming back and having three hours of Dairy 101, I now figure I know more about dairy than my husband.  I'm looking forward to teaching him a thing or two, and I'm looking forward to hearing a lot more information to add to that today.

    So thanks for making me feel so welcome, and it's good to see my former family, the USAID folks, and also many of you that I've realized yesterday that I've met along the way and the work that I've done with USAID.

    Red cup a reminder of ever-present hunger

    There's a red cup, and I brought it with me but it sits in my cupboard at home in Iowa. This is the cup that children in Africa use to get fed every day at school.  The cup is there every Saturday morning to remind me of the work that I've done at USAID for the last four years as Senior Advisor for International Education, and I don't want to forget the accomplishments that we had, especially the very special relationship and collaboration with USDA, the McGovern-Dole school feeding program. (Note: It is the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program.) More importantly, that cup reminds me of the ever-present hunger that I saw as I traveled around the world and the work that we did with all of our partners, some of whom are at this conference, as we work together to teach millions of kids to read around the world and make a better life for themselves and their families.

    If we succeed, I think the most important message to people, especially in this country, if we succeed at that, all of us in this room and everybody out there around the country, and the world, is going to be safer and, certainly, more prosperous, including the dairy farmers of Idaho and the dairy farmers all across this country.

    Children can't learn if they don't eat

    So, 250 million children in the world don't know how to read. About half of them don't have access to an education, and many of those are girls. The other half isn't learning because their teachers don't have any idea how to teach. They don’t understand the science of teaching reading.  Even those kids with access to an education attend school erratically because, especially the girls, [they] have to work in the fields, they have to gather sticks for fire, they have to gather water, they are taking care of younger children and they may not have textbooks in a language that they can understand.  They may not have school uniforms; they may not have a teacher who shows up every day, and, in many cases, they can't learn because they haven't eaten enough to fuel their bodies, especially their brains. Worst of all, some of them, many of them, have lost the ability to learn because stunting and malnutrition have robbed their brains of the capacity to learn, and without the proper nutrition the synapsis stop working, their brains stop branching. For some the inability to learn is determined before they are born —their mothers were stunted because they didn’t have access to nutritious food like dairy products or fruits and vegetables.

    Other speakers have spoken, and will speak today, about the definition of stunting; how it is sometimes undetected because many people in some of the countries where we work around the world are small-statured to begin with.  They will talk about measuring children before and after that second year of life, they'll explain the data, (which is) connected to the likelihood that a stunted mother will produce a stunted child, and they'll talk about the fact that we must treat malnutrition at its root causes and not just do things like providing school feeding programs.

    I just learned, for instance, from the data that I've been reading that it shows a mother’s access to milk actually determines the size of her child's head. 

    Some progress, but still a long way to go

    Every time I attend conferences about child nutrition, I'm impressed at how far we've come.  The rate of malnutrition has decreased an estimated 40 percent from 1990 to 25 percent in 2013.  Even before the sustainable development goals were developed and affirmed, the World Health Organization (WHO) challenged countries to come up with national targets to prevent malnutrition and stunting since it is not curable. The WHO is now monitoring progress in gathering data that will be important in determining what our steps are moving forward, but we have a long way to go and so much more to learn.

    Sixty-six million primary school-aged children attend classes hungry across the developing world and 23 million of those are in Africa.  Children can't learn if they don't eat.  Children can't learn if they can't eat.

    I am not an expert in childhood nutrition or in stunting and malnutrition, but my colleagues at USAID are, and, over the past four years, they have taught me the value of research and data-driven decision making, especially in the world of growing populations and declining public resources.  In return, I've taught them the value of speaking about kids reading and school feeding in everyday language that people on Main Street, and the people who represent them in state capitals and in Washington can understand.

    When I got in (to the hotel) the other night, it was late on Tuesday night and I was checking in and the guy behind the counter here at the hotel said, "So what are you folks doing here?"  He said, "I asked somebody and they've tried to explain it me and I didn't understand a word they said."  I said to him what I just said to you, "We're here because children can't learn if they can't eat," and he said, "Oh?  Okay.  I get it."  And I figured, well if he asks me another question I'll provide more information, but I always say this work is like talking to kids about sex.  You don't tell them everything in kindergarten.  You just tell them one thing, you answer their question, and then you have the opportunity to add information to that later, but you don't need to dive right in. 

    That was my first impression of the people I've worked with for the last four years and some of you in this room as well because you know so much. In my job, knowing more often makes it harder for me to explain to regular people what's going on because the more I learn the more I want to tell them, and I know that's how it is with the people that I've been working with for the last few years.

    USDEC President and CEO Tom Vilsack on preventing childhood stunting

    Understanding the power of food

    But given the current anti-foreign assistance climate around the world, I find hope in the generation of young people across the world who are committed to collaborating across country lines and innovating to solve global problems. 

    The generation of my children, and those students who are now in college, understand the power of food and they’re poised to lead.  Some are focusing their studies on providing quality nutrition and quality education to children in this country (and) around the world, but they're not all just academics. They are farmers, they are educators, managers and CEOs of companies that produce food and beverages; they are scientists, and engineers, and healthcare professionals, extension specialists, book publishers, and parents. They live in rural Maine, in Mexico, in urban Michigan, and Dubai.

    The sustainable development goals provide a roadmap for this up-and-coming generation to find solutions to those global problems and to find a way to communicate to fellow taxpayers and policymakers globally the value of investing in their solutions.

    Every time I get the chance to speak at an event like this, I find myself coming back to the same themes:  the power of community and collaborations to solve big problems, and the power of stories connected with facts to keep the public informed. 

    Consider Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world

    So today, before you return to discussing how best to reach these goals, I would like to focus your attention on one place and one girl, and help connect what you do here today with how it will change her life, her family’s life, and the future of her country.  So, come with me to Malawi, a small country in eastern Africa, considered one of the poorest countries in the world.  In Malawi, women are bearing an average of six children, which means that the farms are getting smaller as the number of people they need to feed gets larger.  They only grow one crop—corn—one I’m very familiar with, and it only rains once.  If the rains are late or they don't come, as happened last November when I was there, people start to starve as they watch the corn grow.

    In Malawi, 47 percent of the children under the age of five are stunted. So it's 10 o’clock in the morning when we arrive at Motcombe Primary, a rural school in southern Malawi.  It's the custom of the mothers in Malawi, and other African countries, to sing guests into the village. Under a lean-to in the distance using long-handled paddles, other mothers stir pots of porridge that are taller than most of the children in the school.  Inside the store room at this school, and in many of the other schools around the world that I've visited in places like Honduras and Laos, I see large bags stacked to the ceiling, corn sway and rice blends, stamped with USDA and USAID logos. This food has been given on behalf of the American people for people in need around the world since 1960 when President John Kennedy started USAID to compliment the State Department and the Department of Defense.

    When they have access, these mothers stir in other kinds of foods to enrich the porridge, often sorghum, for instance, but that is not often possible.  For many of the children, this serving of porridge that they get is the reason they come to school. 

    Meet Martha, a first-grader wanting to read

    This is the day that I meet Martha, a tiny first-grader in a pink sweater. She is so shy that I can barely hear her reply when I ask her name, and she reminded me a lot of the shy little girl I used to be growing up surrounded by cornfields just as she is growing up. She's taking, here, a 10-minute reading test to determine how well she is doing in recognizing letters and naming them, and she was struggling a little bit but you could tell that she was making progress.  So, I asked the local reading specialist, Dr. Mike Nacoma, how Martha's life is going to be different when she learns to read.  And he said, "This is an agricultural community.  Martha will be a farmer, but she will be a more prosperous farmer because she will be able to read the extension information," and he said she'll be a healthier woman because she'll also be able to have access to healthcare information.  She will choose to have fewer children and she will space them and that makes her healthier, and we know he sensed that, statistically, a woman that knows how to read will have children that live past five years old. 

    She will be a leader in her community; she will teach other people information, especially other women that she has access to, and we know, also statistically, that in countries where women know how to read, countries that educate women, the gross national product of those countries go up.

    Opening up new educational opportunities

    Dr. Nacoma's sisters are a perfect example of this.  His own father insisted that all his children go to school, including his two sisters. When his father sent his daughters to school, the other men in the community laughed at him and made fun of him, but they didn't pay any attention to them. They just continued going to school and now they are supporting their elderly father and other older men in the community have literally apologized to him for laughing and them and now they are hoping their granddaughters will get a chance to go to school.

    So, when Dr. Nacoma's sisters were Martha's age, they were the exception.  But today, in this little village, there are equal numbers of girls and boys going to school through fourth grade. Our challenge is to make sure that those girls get to continue on and get an education. We need to keep them in school for as long as possible, because they'll become teachers and they'll become role models to other girls in their community and eventually, over generations, just as in this country, they'll eventually have opportunities to become artists, and engineers, and politicians, and lawyers, and anything else they want to be.

    Educating the world about the role dairy can play

    Martha motivates me every day in the work that I did and in the work that I do now. I like to imagine her as an adult walking through her village, stopping children along the way to find out what they're reading, possibly going to a library that she helped start, maybe being a member of the parent group and advocating for adding that milk powder to that porridge or making sure that there is a school milk program at some time in the future, much like the one that nourished me when I was a child in the '50s and the milk that nourished our children when they were children in the ‘80s.

    You already know the research that shows that adding dairy to corn and soy or rice blends gets nutritional results, but the challenge is not only educating decision-makers in donor countries, like ours, but also in the local countries where we are working about the benefits. Because they are the ones who have to weigh how much something costs with how much they have to spend and they have to make those very important decisions. That's not easy for anybody.  Even without the value-added proteins, there are other ways to get a bigger bang for the nutritional buck, but it requires collaboration.

    Breakfast before school an important investment

    My education colleagues explained to me that feeding in the middle of the school day, which often ends at 1 or 2 o’clock in the afternoon, is not ideal.  We already know from USDA-supported school breakfast programs in the United States that a nutritional breakfast before school begins is a good investment. 

    As a teacher of over 40 years, I know the children come to school hungry, even in the small rural community where I live in in Iowa, surrounded by the richest farmland in the world.  But it is in Malawi, where I am sitting in the back of the classroom observing that I see for the first time children who look lethargic with glazed eyes, too tired to think and too tired to poke the kid next to them, too tired to go out and play at recess really. There are also children in the back of the classroom at Motcombe School who are too young to be first graders. Some of these classes in Malawi, and Malawi is just an example for all the other countries I've been to, especially in Africa, contain 100 to 200 students with one teacher. That's overwhelming for the best of teachers.

    But these children in the back of the room registered to be in first grade, even though they are not that old and they are not yet capable of doing first grade work, because they're hungry.  So, they come to school. First-graders sit in the back of the room until they get fed at 10 o’clock and then they go home once their bellies are full.  When they are sitting there, the teacher, who has already 100 to 200 students to deal with, simply ignores them.

    Challenge: Finding practical solutions to hunger problem

    So, putting our heads together with local leaders, our partner countries, partner agencies and non-profit partners like Catholic Relief Services and World Vision, we have come up with a lot of practical solutions.  In November 2016, just this past year, two years after that first visit when I met Martha, I returned to Malawi to travel the country with the Minister of Education, Dr. Fabiano and U.S. Ambassador Palmer to announce a $100 million investment, along with the UK, in a reading program that was going to be scaled up for the entire country.

    It also included a component on girls' education health and nutrition.  This is a collaboration between USAID, USDA and Let Girls Learn, Michelle Obama's attempt to educate girls in this country and around the world.

    In the two years between my trips to Malawi, USAID education worked with USDA McGovern-Dole to find ways that we could improve both school feeding programs and school reading programs, and how we could do that and make both better but also more cost-effective.  So in November 2016, when we arrived at a primary school just outside the capital city, the children were already fed by 7:30 in the morning.  After talking to our implementing partner, the World Food Program, about the data that showed the benefit of children fueling up before they start their school day, WFP had made adjustments (to their program) and managed to feed all these kids before the school day began.

     At USAID, we send Foreign Service officers, our education officers, into countries for three or four years. The reason we do that is so that they can create relationships with local ministers—the Minister of Education, the Minister of Finance, and the Minister of Health—with all the local NGOs and local people, and in that way, they helped create a consensus and a plan that is very much owned by the people in the country. 

    Collaboration paved way to progress in Malawi

    This is what happened in Malawi.  Malawi is a country where people get along. There aren’t enough people and they have a peaceful transition of power. So, I've seen, even in the last few years, a collaboration happening between administrations, between ambassadors, and our USAID officers. I'll never forget the speech that Minister Fabiano made to parents in a small village in extreme northern Malawi where hundreds of people gathered in the noonday sun with all of their children.

    We had traveled 10 hours on bumpy roads from the capital to get there, and we wanted the people in the north, which is often overlooked, to know that we care as much about their well-being as the people in the more well-developed south of Malawi.

    The minister made it clear that this reading program was a Malawi program. It was supported by the government of Malawi. It could not succeed, he said, unless parents agreed to send their children to school every day, including the girls.  Every day.  It would not succeed if parents didn't get involved in the lessons their children were learning at school.  It required creating more covered outdoor classrooms, dividing up teachers who were teaching in teams and putting them in more classrooms so they can have fewer children to work with.  It required, he said, that children be fed every day at school so that they can learn.

    The initiative that we were kicking off will put a book, a reading textbook in English and a reading textbook in Chichewa (a language of the Bantu language family spoken in Malawi) in the hand of every first- and second-grade child in the country. It's training teachers to use those books and to learn the science of teaching reading, and it would assess children so parents would know whether their kids were actually learning to read or not, like the test that Martha was taking that only takes 10 minutes.  But if it failed, Dr. Fabiano said, "It would be the country's fault and not the fault of donor countries."

    I think Malawi might be one of those special places where partnership and relationships and patience will pay off over time.  It's the kind of place and the kind of people that we can talk about when we're out there outside of these rooms where we all know so much.  Many of you have your own special places.

    Success stories part of the discussion

    I just chose that one from the 20 countries that I've visited in the last four years. You have stories of your own and I hope that you will go out and tell them, because if we tell these stories, and I often think maybe we will all be better off if we were out there standing on the streets chatting people up about what we do instead of being in these rooms, as much as I know that this is important in moving all of this forward. 

    If we tell these success stories on Main Street and cafes, and we talk about them over the Sunday dinner table or at family functions, if we talk about them in the halls of Congress, we can bring the American people along as long as we are patient and as long as we tell the stories over and over again. (If we) add the data that is most important for people to understand without overwhelming them with it, because whether Martha is in Malawi or whether she is in Michigan or whether she is in Mexico or Mumbai, we're all more secure and we're all more prosperous if she learns to read.

    Your work here today is to give her a healthy start so she can begin school ready to learn, and for that I am very thankful. I thank you very much for including me in this.

    Luke Waring is manager of communications and membership at the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

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    The U.S. Dairy Export Council fosters collaborative industry partnerships with processors, trading companies and others to enhance global demand for U.S. dairy products and ingredients. USDEC is primarily supported by Dairy Management Inc. through the dairy farmer checkoff. How to republish this post.  .

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