“It’s about making the public aware of the challenge,” says Howard Schiffer, founder and president of Vitamin Angels. “Most are not aware that chronic malnutrition is the biggest single killer of kids.”
“We don’t have to do research on this. We can solve this today.”
Nineteen years ago Howard Schiffer was in his 40s, and a veteran of the natural products industry. While the early years had been ‘fun and interesting’, after about 14 years ‘it stopped being fun’.
“I remember thinking that this cannot be it. I needed to do something that meant something.”
And then the earthquake happened. Schiffer was contacted by a local relief agency that was helping migrant workers who had their homes destroyed. About 400 people were living in tents, he was told, and there were concerns over the health of the children and the elderly. While Schiffer could not help directly (his company did not produce vitamin supplements), he did know people. He made a call, and went back to his business.
“I then got this call and this lady was screaming down the phone with delight – A truck had pulled up with three pallets of vitamins,” he recalls.
Three weeks later a meeting was arranged and Schiffer began to appreciate just how much vitamins are needed.
“We started with zero capital and no way to get the word out, but we had a lot of passion and I had phenomenal connections.”
“Vitamins are a central piece of global health.”
In 2008, the Copenhagen Consensus ranked micronutrient supplementation for undernourished children as the #1 priority.
“One vitamin A supplement every six months can reduce the risk of all causes of death by 24%,” he says. “One supplement is 25 cents per child.”
A 2007 WHO report noted that one of the greatest challenges for vitamin A supplementation has been finding sustainable mechanisms to deliver it.
Vitamin Angels is promoting self-sustainable programs. In India, for example, they are using product procured in India, it’s funded in India, staffed by Indians. “That’s just one idea of a self-sustaining model.”
A lot of attention in developing countries and regions has been on building schools, clinics and improving water supplies, which are all critically important, but people soon realize that building a school is great, he says, but if the kids are unhealthy or worse are malnourished, then schools cannot do much.
“Vitamin Angels had a critical piece to help. We have the infrastructure, we can bring in the product, we’ll provide technical information, and the local people know how to reach specific populations.”
In many communities where the organization is active, Schiffer notes that vitamins have become a draw, and people keep coming back.
“Usually, people in the worst shape will try anything. The results of our vitamins are pretty profound and quick, and words starts spreading that ‘big babies’ are because of the vitamins, then we get badgered by everyone,” he says with a smile.
Closer to home
Vitamin Angels are not only active in developing countries, but also on our own doorsteps in food banks in New York and New Jersey.
The situation in the US is different from Guatemala, however. “In the US, the problem is too much of the wrong food – fast food and junk food. Here the problems are obesity and juvenile diabetes. There is hidden hunger here.”
Vitamin Angels has never worked with a government, he notes, “so it’s frustrating when mid-level bureaucrats want bribes and hold things up. We will not do that.
“If the governments were more supportive then they would facilitate this.”
Schiffer says that funding is always a frustration. Compared to the high profile charities and causes, “Vitamin Angels gets a token amount”.
“With the right funding we could really ramp this up. We reached 27 million children last year. This year it will be 30 million. We could easily reach 50 to 100 million without much difficulty.”
Without the funding, such ramping up is just not possible. “That’s tough,” he says.
Vitamin Angels has been incredibly successful in mobilizing the dietary supplements industry, a community that Schiffer describes as “shockingly generous”.
“The generosity is pretty extreme, and there is a real emotional connection.”
Schiffer cites high-profile supporters like Sam’s Club and Vitamin Shoppe as “so passionate about what Vitamin Angels is doing”.
The organization also offers the opportunity for supporters to join them in the field. “It’s a validation and shows the impact of vitamin A deficiency,” he says. “It makes the work come alive. All of a sudden you’re connecting at a very different level.”
Schiffer also pays tribute to the companies that have been supporters from day one – the “true believers”.
“Most of the companies that started with us 19 years ago are still with us.”
Despite being known within the industry, wider awareness is slower to achieve.
“We’re not at the stage where FedEx or UPS give us the use of their trucks… yet.”
The organization has “largely been invisible”, he adds. “We’ve never put the money into advertising. We put the money into the kids.”
Starting to see what’s possible
Long-term, the goal is to not be dealing with vitamin deficiency. "We can get past that quickly with the right support. There are 500,000 kids a year who are still going blind, and we could prevent that for 25 cents."
Organizations like Unicef only work with governments, and the further you get from civilization the less that system works, he says. Governments are reaching between 50 and 70%, adds Schiffer, but what about the bottom 30%? Vitamin Angels can reach them.
“There is a big difference between poverty and extreme poverty,” he says. “Extreme poverty is when people are not on the economic ladder, and they are so close to the edge and it doesn’t take much to push them over. The kids under the age of five are going to die.
“It’s a downward spiral and with nutrient intervention we have a chance to start to reverse that. We want to be in a situation where all women of childbearing age are taking prenatal vitamins, so that the new mothers can see on the day their baby is born that the child can achieve what he or she is capable of achieving.
“When a mother has a healthy baby, and she sees that her baby has a chance of a better life than she has, then you start to see what’s possible.”