LIANE HANSEN, host:
If you don't consume enough calories to fuel your body's needs, you'll die. If you don't consume enough micronutrients, such as Vitamin A and zinc, you may live, but not for long or very well. Fortunately, progress is being made to develop fortified foods for the poor who are missing those micronutrients.
NPR's Anthony Kuhn has this report on one nutritional experiment at a Beijing school.
(Soundbite of basketball court)
ANTHONY KUHN: There's no shortage of energy on the basketball courts at the Dandelion School, Beijing's only government-approved middle school serving migrant workers' children.
In 2006, the school began an experiment in cooperation with China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention. They gave students three fortified meals a day for eight months. School Principal Zheng Hong Blood says blood tests before and after the experiment showed a vast improvement in levels of nutrients such as Vitamins A, B-1, iron and zinc.
Ms. ZHENG HONG (Principal, Dandelion School): After eight months of the intervention, it's improved dramatically. Now we are surpassing the number in countryside, and even higher than the national average, but still not there in comparison with the city average.
KUHN: Despite Beijing's increasing affluence, migrant laborers remain an underclass, and it shows in their kids' nutrition. Zheng Hong says that kids come to her school nearly four inches shorter and 22 pounds lighter than average kids their age. School physician Chen Qing explains that many migrant laborers' kids are used to fending for themselves at mealtime.
Dr. CHEN QING (Physician, Dandelion School): (Through Translator) In the countryside, kids are assured of getting three meals a day, because their parents are at their side, but not these kids. Their parents struggle to earn money, but when they've made some, sometimes they just go off and enjoy themselves.
KUHN: In the school's kitchen, Chef Liu stirs huge woks of spicy eggplant, ground pork and vegetables. The fortified foods he cooks are ready to use and locally made, both of which experts say are important in nutritional intervention programs.
Chef LIU (Dandelion School): (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: So Chef Liu is showing us boxes of soy sauce that's fortified with iron. And over here we have boxes of Vitamin A soya bean oil - that's oil that's used to cook the dishes. And then we have huge plastic sacks of rice, which has little yellow pellets in it, which include vitamins.
(Soundbite of cafeteria)
KUHN: Eighth-grader Liao Shuli lines up to get her lunch. Her parents are farmers who moved to Beijing three years ago from a poor area of central Henan Province. She says that without the nutrition the school provides, she wouldn't have the energy to make it through all of her classes.
Ms. LIAO SHULI: (Through Translator) Before at home, I just ate instant noodles. My skin was yellowish and I was skinny. I felt like I was sick. Once I started coming to this school, I stopped snacking and I ate fortified rice. My skin became fairer, and I felt healthier and more energetic.
KUHN: At a recent conference in Beijing, aid groups and food companies discussed fighting micronutrient deficiency in developing countries. Al Sommer, the former dean of the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, explains why people with micronutrient deficiency often go unnoticed.
Dr. AL SOMMER (Former Dean, School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University): They don't look different, so it's hidden. It's not like seeing skinny, wasted, famine-stricken populations, and yet it's as deadly. And it holds back development, because development depends upon having energy, surviving infectious episodes, having the best IQ you can get out of your genetic framework.
KUHN: Sommer and other experts say that increasing micronutrients is the most effective form of public health intervention, creating $17 worth of economic benefits for every dollar invested.
Back at the Dandelion School, Principal Zheng says that the ultimate payoff from nutritional intervention is the students' longer attention spans and higher marks on standardized tests to get into high schools.
Ms. ZHENG: When the students walked into Dandelion, the passing rate was less than one percent. Last year's passing rate was 98 percent. We are proud of that.
KUHN: Certainly part of it is due to the teaching, as well. But you're sure that some of this was also due to the nutrition?
Ms. ZHENG: Definitely.
KUHN: Zheng says the nutritional experiment is now a permanent part of the school's mission: to give migrant laborers' kids the education that society has denied them.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
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