Big Plans, Even for This Mega-Funder: A Super-Sized Push on Nutrition by Gates

Malnutrition is in the crosshairs of some big funders, but none as big as the Gates Foundation. Nutrition has been an area of focus at the foundation since 2000 when it awarded Johns Hopkins University a $31 million grant for its work in Vitamin A and related micronutrients to improve childhood and infant mortality in developing countries.

Gates, as per usual, has piled up some astounding grant numbers since then—over $500 million in nutrition total—but it tends to award only 10 to 15 such grants annually. We have a feeling that’s all about to change.

The foundation recently announced that it would up its commitment to making the health and nutrition of women and children a top global health priority, by pledging $776 million toward those ends. The money will be spread out over the next six years to nutrition efforts around the globe both in the form of grants and investments.

Okay, now that's a very big number even for the Gates Foundation, where it seems like everything is super-sized. So this effort is definitely worth paying attention to. 

For one thing, it's a reminder that the foundation is well aware that the age-old scourge of hunger is anything but licked, even though this funder is often associated with a high-tech quest for new breakthroughs against infectious diseases. “Malnutrition is the underlying cause of nearly half of all under-5 child deaths,” said Bill Gates, announcing the gift. “Yet for too long the world has underinvested in nutrition."

This issue appeals to the Gates Foundation as another example of money spent now preventing bigger problems later. That's because malnutrition doesn't just kill many children; it also leads to various developmental problems later. As Gates said, dropping an appalling statistic: "A quarter of children around the world are stunted—physically and mentally—and will never achieve their full potential."

So while it can be tempting to see the fight against malnutrition as a rather uncreative form of Band-Aid philanthropy, pouring buckets of water into an ocean of need, Gates sees the issue differently: As a leverage point to shape the future. This work may not deliver the same bang for the buck as vaccinations, but it can make a big difference in long-term outcomes, to say nothing of lives saved today. 

The foundation is calling its approach to nutrition new, and will include efforts related to tried-and-true solutions such as breastfeeding and food fortification, as well as more innovative strategies. This new approach will also focus on improving food systems, and ensuring that women and adolescent girls are aware of the benefits of good nutrition before they become pregnant. For now, the foundation is looking to focus its efforts in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Burkina Faso.

Related: Gates Quietly Funds an Easy Solution to Help Infants Survive and Thrive

The Gates pledge was also the key that unlocked an additional $180 million from the UK’s Department of International Development (DFID). Ahead of the foundation’s $776 million pledge, DFID committed to a 1:2 match for pledges made outside of those announced at the Nutrition Growth summit back in 2013.

Plenty of NGOs and funders are paying attention to the importance of nutrition aside from the European Commission, DFID, and other government agencies.

UNICEF, UBS, and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation partnered up to for the Power of Nutrition Fund, which is getting boots on the ground at lightning speed. The $1 billion mega-fund has already managed to make $200 million of its commitments, which includes a $55 million investment from CIFF. DIFD also contributed $47 million to the fund and the UBS Optimus Foundation put in for $26 million.

Related: A Big New Fund for Children’s Nutrition is Off to a Strong Start

Last year, the PepsiCo Foundation and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) paired up to form the Sustained Program to Improve Nutrition, or SPOON. The program has a five-year planned run and is addressing obesity-related health problems and reducing the high rate of chronic malnutrition in children ages six months to two years old in Mexico, Guatemala, and Columbia.

Related: Pepsi and IDB Partner up on World Food Day