Let’s begin at one of the most remote places on earth. A strip of desert along the border between Chad and Sudan in central Africa.  It’s where I met a woman whose story I’ll never forget.

In the scorching sun, Halima was foraging for berries on a shrub that was one of the few plants alive in this barren, sandy place. She was one of 300,000 refugees who’d fled Darfur with nothing and were now living in a bleak, crowded camp. To eat these berries, they need to be pounded with a stone to break the tough skins and then soaked for several days to leach out toxins. The chickpea-like fruits are part of a group of plants known as ‘survival foods’ – hardy through a drought when all the other edible plants have died.

Survival foods are not enough for children’s developing brains and bodies. And if it’s the only food they’re eating, they’re in grave danger of becoming malnourished.

That’s where the World Food Programme comes in.

For young children and mothers like Halima, the World Food Programme provides a fortified cereal that’s blended with essential vitamins and minerals to protect against malnutrition until the family can provide nourishing food for themselves again.

A Child’s Best Opportunity

I’ve been with the World Food Programme for eight years, and now lead our passionate nutrition team after spending two years as Country Director in Chad.

One of the areas we focus on is the thousand day period from conception to a child’s 2nd birthday. This window is a critical period of growth and brain development when children need essential nutrients to have a much better chance of being healthy throughout their life.

It also means as soon as a mother knows she’s pregnant she needs essential nutrients to support a healthy child and stay healthy herself. It’s equally important to make sure she has the right information and resources to feed her child the healthiest diet possible from birth. That’s how children can survive and thrive: they have a better chance of staying healthy, doing better at school and going on to reach their full potential.

Full Bellies, Fill Minds

Like Jamie Oliver, we’re also passionate about healthy school meals.

When children reach school age, that’s another opportunity to ensure they get healthy, nutritious food. WFP does this through School Meals, either working directly with schools or by supporting governments to develop and implement policies and programs.

Whether it’s children in Kenya eating okra and beans or children in Peru eating rice and vegetables, a child with a full belly can concentrate better during lessons and learn more.

WFP is working to make sure that these school meals are healthy and nutritious so that the kids have a diversified diet. We often do this by adding essential vitamin and mineral sprinkles to the meal.

To make the school meals programs more sustainable, we’re also encouraging communities to grow the vegetables, beans and grains that we then buy for the school meals, giving the local growers a source of income.

The main lesson I’ve learnt from my work at the World Food Programme is that every mother wants a happy, healthy child – no matter where they are born.

We have the greatest opportunity now to see this happen. Last year every country in the world agreed on the new Sustainable Development Goals, which specifically includes nutrition as a high priority. We’re working with governments, and others including the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, to make sure those goals are met so that all children everywhere can enjoy healthy nutritious food and reach their full potential.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the work we do, visit www.wfp.org

You can find out more about Halima and survival foods here.

Photo: WFP/Agron Dragaj | In Mauritania, children share a school meal provided by the World Food Programme. WFP provides school meals to over 156,000 primary school children in Mauritania.

About Lauren Landis

Lauren Landis is Director of the World Food Programme’s Nutrition Division and is based in Rome, Italy. She has spent most of her career working in relief and development, including in Chad and Sudan, and for the non-government organization Save the Children. In 2002, she served as Director of the Office of Food for Peace within the U.S. Agency for International Development. In 2006, she became the U.S. Department of State’s Senior Representative on Sudan.

The World Food Programme is part of the United Nations and is working towards ending hunger. Each year, WFP assists 80 million people in around 80 countries and is entirely voluntarily funded. In emergencies, WFP gets food to where it is needed, saving the lives of victims of war, civil conflict and natural disasters. WFP also works with governments and others to lift communities out of chronic hunger.