In a slum on the outskirts of Chennai, India’s fourth largest city and a hub of automobile and software manufacturing, life revolves around other people’s garbage. Dilapidated apartment complexes rise above the metropolis’s towering trash dump, which is constantly ablaze, sending noxious plumes of white and black smoke skyward and tainting the hot, muggy air with rank aromas and eye-irritating fumes. On the ground, amid the steady traffic of overflowing dump trucks, the buildings’ five-story trash chutes empty directly onto the sidewalks, where scrawny dogs rummage for scraps and naked children, wearing only a red string bracelet or belt to ward off evil, play. In the shadow of the apartments are one-room, half-story huts that house families of six or more who must fight a barrage of flies and filth while preparing meals.
Those living in this place called Kodungaiyur, who range from sex workers and daylong drunks to sawmill men, rickshaw drivers, and fish dealers, make the best of it: Mothers and daughters cobble together an income by sorting through scrap metal for recyclable goods, young men search out blankets and boards to construct the lean-tos that line the streets, and the poorest scour the mountains of waste to find anything that can keep their family alive another day. In a city approaching eight million people, this is a 24-hour reality for one million souls, or about 20 percent of Chennai’s population.
These “ragpickers,” as the bottom rung of society is known across the subcontinent, do their dirty, diligent work just a rickshaw-ride away from shiny technology parks that house Dell Computer, Samsung Electronics, and Motorola Cellular. While those multinational corporations symbolize India’s well-publicized and long-deserved, but relatively recent, rise to 21st-century prosperity, the ragpickers represent a much more global and generational story, a tale of the downtrodden everywhere who are locked into a seemingly unbreakable chain of poverty. They are born poor, hungry, and unhealthy; grow up unable to focus on school; wind up working dollar-a-day jobs, if they’re lucky, for their entire lives; and have children who are poor, hungry, and unhealthy.
There are signs, however, that the cycle can be derailed; during the last decade or so, global poverty policymakers have come to realize what may be the most crucial key in unlocking this chain: basic childhood nutrition. It’s not rocket science, but it’s taken the humanitarian world quite a while to figure out that it’s not just how much people put into their mouths, it’s what goes in that makes the difference. The focus is finally shifting from macronutrients-which are the foodstuffs needed to keep the body moving, such as carbohydrates, fats, and proteins-to micronutrients such as Vitamin A, iron, and iodine, the building blocks of lifelong health. For people who’ve been living for generations on simply rice and other grains, this is a significant shift.
Few are spreading this micronutrient gospel more widely and effectively than Vitamin Angels, a 14-year-old nonprofit based in a small warehouse on Santa Barbara’s Eastside. Run by the charismatic Howard Schiffer, the organization distributed vitamins to more than seven million children and pregnant mothers across 40 countries in 2007. Although other aid agencies incorporate vitamin dispersal in their repertoire, Vitamin Angels is one of the few nonprofits in the world solely focused on nutrition, and the only one that’s pledged to wipe out the world’s childhood Vitamin A deficiency by the year 2020.
The centerpiece of Vitamin Angels’ plight is India, a massive, disjointed country of 1.2 billion people where two million babies die every year from malnutrition. When it comes strictly to numbers of people, the subcontinent has the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis on its hands, even as business booms. “If your intention is to impact global health,” said Schiffer recently, “you really better have a presence in and a plan for India.” Last year alone, Vitamin Angels distributed vitamins to more than one million of India’s children. And as a trip through the subcontinent revealed last February, Vitamin Angels still has plenty of people to put under its wings.
Learning to Fly
When the Northridge earthquake struck in 1994, more than 20,000 people found themselves homeless, including poor populations of migrant workers in places such as Fillmore. As Howard Schiffer-then the 44-year-old president of a natural foods company in Santa Barbara-watched the aftermath unfold, he got a phone call from a friend at Direct Relief International (DRI), the Goleta-based nonprofit that responds to disasters across the globe. DRI, as usual, had sprung into action, but while it had the medicine and basic foods, the people were starting to get sick. They needed vitamins.
Schiffer tapped his considerable connections in the nutritional supplements industry, the folks who’ve made household names out of omega-3 fatty acids, ginkgo biloba, and ginseng during the past 20 years. Three days later, a truck was unloading pallets of vitamins at DRI’s headquarters. “It was the most amazing thing,” remembered Schiffer, who suddenly realized how effective vitamins would be at combating disease and improving health in disaster zones. That same year, Vitamin Angels (VA) took flight.
For the next couple years, VA worked as an all-volunteer affiliate of DRI, adding to its disaster relief response. But Schiffer began thinking that the need for vitamins wasn’t just in disasters; they could be used to fight malnutrition in developing countries all over the world. “I realized that to reach the people,” said Schiffer, “we needed to work with more agencies.” So he moved VA into separate offices, and slowly separated from DRI. “It was a good thing in many ways,” he said, acknowledging it was scary to leave DRI’s support network, “because it got us on our own feet and got us out into the world to work with bigger agencies than Direct Relief, and reach a lot more kids.” By 1998, VA had officially incorporated as its own 501(c)(3) organization.
Schiffer remained a volunteer for the first 10 years of Vitamin Angels, but in 2004, after taking out two mortgages on his home and working odd jobs to feed his wife, son, and two daughters, Schiffer went to his board-a collection of mostly nutritional supplement entrepreneurs and natural food product industry executives-saying he had to find work again. But the board wouldn’t let him go. “We will find a way to make this work,” Schiffer remembered them saying. “There’s too much opportunity on the table.” So he became the full-time, salaried director of Vitamin Angels, and has since grown the nonprofit to employ 10 other people and a revolving team of interns. The growth has created more overhead, but Schiffer, who is 58 years old today, said that 95 percent of donations still go straight to the programs.
Using existing DRI partnerships and establishing new ones, VA grew quickly, jumping from 1994’s count of 100,000 vitamins distributed to a 2005 tally of 100 million. It sent vitamins into Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami and to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, but also began long-range efforts to stop mothers dying from childbirth in Bali with prenatal vitamins, to fight rickets in Tibet with calcium and Vitamin D, and to improve childhood health in the Dominican Republic with daily multivitamins and anti-parasitic tablets, among many other programs.
To do so, Schiffer connects with existing agencies in these countries-such as midwife organizations in Indonesia and the ministry of education in Honduras-and adds vitamin distribution to their repertoires. That ensures a reliable infrastructure, keeps overhead costs down, and leads to more in-country support and acceptance since the locals are still in charge. And childhood health, believes Schiffer, will make the rest of these peoples’ lives that much easier. “Our sense is that nutrition is a core strategy, a foundation piece,” he said. “If you deal with that foundation, then you can deal with education and all those other things. But you’ve got to put that one in place first.”
Vitamin Angels received a surge of support in 2001, when a wealthy, well-connected executive made a deal with God to help save the world as he awaited word of his World Trade Center-working daughter during the 9/11 attacks. (She survived.) The man contacted Schiffer, who informed him that he could save lives for literally 25 cents a head. Johnson & Johnson was brought on board, and VA had its first corporate sponsor, providing both products and cash.
Then, in 2003, the gauntlet was thrown down. At a meeting in Bangkok, Schiffer was presented with the chance to reach 35 million children throughout Southeast Asia. But Johnson & Johnson thought it was too much, too fast. “We had to leave it on the table,” recalled Schiffer, still dismayed by the missed chance. “I said, ‘That’s it. I am never going to walk away from that opportunity again.’” The next time, Schiffer promised to “write the check myself” if he had to. Since 2003, the organization has been preparing for that goal. Today, they’re ready operationally if not financially. “We could reach 50 million this year if we had the funding,” said Schiffer, who said that Vitamin Angels’ annual budget is now about $1.5 million, but bemoaned the constant fundraising required by the lack of an endowment. “The challenge we’re facing right now is that our funding is for three to five months, but our programs are three to five years.”
Last year, VA launched its most ambitious initiative yet, with the support again of Johnson & Johnson and on-the-ground agencies in the selected countries. Fittingly called Operation 20/20, the goal is to eradicate childhood blindness caused by Vitamin A deficiency throughout the world by 2020. That requires distributions of Vitamin A-which is needed for healthy eyesight, not to mention strong skin and good immune systems-every six months for kids between the ages of two and five. Combined with an anti-parasitic tablet that rids children’s stomach of the worms so prevalent in areas without clean water or basic hygiene, the program costs $1 per child for four years of treatment. It reached 4.5 million children in 2007 and will reach seven million this year. Though 17 countries across the world are already benefiting from Operation 20/20, the country likely to benefit the most is India.
By Matt Kettmann