Interview by Molly Fincher, World Ark writer
Many Heifer projects around the world aim to improve nutrition for children. The School Milk Program in Tanzania featured in this issue is an overnight success story, boosting attendance rates, attention spans and energy levels. Heifer International Technical Director for Nutrition Akoto Osei knows a lot about the benefi ts and potential challenges of this kind of program. Osei earned a doctoral degree in food policy and applied nutrition from Tufts University, and he’s worked to improve diets and health in many countries across Africa and Asia. Here’s what he had to say about the benefits of dairy foods for children.
WORLD ARK: What are the benefits of dairy foods for children? Are there any drawbacks?
AKOTO OSEI: Milk and dairy products are benefi cial to children because these foods promote growth and development. Milk and dairy products are high in energy, high-quality proteins and micronutrients including calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin A, vitamin B2 and folate. If fortified, milk can also be a rich source of vitamin D.
Milk also boosts body levels of a hormone that is essential for growth in children. So drinking milk can promote linear growth and weight gain while addressing defi ciencies of several micronutrients. Milk consumption can also improve various developmental outcomes, including bone and brain development. Making milk available to children in developing countries is particularly important because the quality of diets for some children in these countries is low, and many families have limited access to animal-based proteins.
However, it’s important to remember that milk isn’t a silver bullet for nutrition. Unfortified cow’s milk is low in iron, an important nutrient for child development. Some studies also suggest that the high calcium content of cow’s milk can inhibit iron absorption from the diet. Cow’s milk is also known to be low in vitamin C. While goat’s milk can provide some of the nutritional necessities that cow’s milk lacks, it is important to note that cow’s milk is high in folate, while goat’s milk contains low amounts of folate.
Are there any safety concerns with children drinking milk?
Although milk can be an essential source of nutrients to young children, providing milk to young children should be done in a manner that does not interfere with breastfeeding. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding during the first 6 months of life. It is highly recommended that, unless pasteurized, raw milk should not be fed to children to be safe. And some children suffer from cow’s milk allergy when given milk, which can cause itching, skin rashes, edema, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramps.
What about lactose intolerance?
People with lactose intolerance cannot effciently digest lactose because the body does not have the ability to produce enough lactase, the enzyme used for digesting milk in the body. This can cause symptoms such as abdominal pains, bloating, diarrhea, nausea and gas. Often, one’s ability to produce lactase decreases with age. The condition often develops in childhood, but the age of onset varies and is related to the extent of exposure to dairy products. The majority of people with lactose intolerance don’t begin to experience major problems eating dairy and milk until adolescence or adulthood.
What kind of benefits are you seeing among children with newfound access to dairy foods?
In areas where diet quality is poor and intake of animal-sourced foods is limited, incorporating milk and dairy products into the diets of young children improves health and nutritional status and boosts physical growth and weight gain. Heifer International and its partner organizations in Tanzania have done a good job of increasing the supply and availability of milk, meaning there is more potential for people in these communities, especially the children, to tap into the nutritional benefits.
Providing a daily dose of milk to schoolchildren is a positive move not only because it makes students healthier, but also because the program can positively infl uence social development outcomes such as school enrollment, attendance and academic performance. It’s not unreasonable to say that this school milk program may ultimately boost employment opportunities and incomes for the students involved.