Hope is the Best Strategy: A Conversation with Sharman Apt Russell

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Sharman Apt Russell’s most recent nonfiction book, Within our Grasp: Childhood Malnutrition Worldwide and the Revolution Taking Place to End It (Pantheon, 2021), is part personal account, part fact-finding mission. She writes of her travels to Malawi, one of the poorest nations not at war, and intertwines the narrative with history, statistics, and stories relating to childhood hunger from all over the world. She brings nutritionists, doctors, and business leaders to lend their views about effective changes and policies, and shines light on community partnerships. The result is an illuminating and necessary read about the global revolution to end childhood hunger and malnutrition.

Professor emeritus in humanities at Western New Mexico University, Russell has authored several works of creative nonfiction and fiction, including Hunger (Basic Books, 2008); Diary of a Citizen Scientist (Oregon State University Press, 2014), winner of the 2016 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished natural history writing; Knocking on Heaven’s Door (Yucca, 2016), winner of the New Mexico/Arizona Book Award for Science Fiction; and Teresa of the New World (Yucca, 2015), winner of the Arizona Authors Association Award.

Writing this book, however, was not without its challenges. “I am used to being an outsider,” Russell told me. “A non-expert in butterflies or archeology or citizen science who is writing about butterflies or archeology or citizen science. For this book, I was an uber-outsider, a white woman from a wealthy country writing about malnutrition affecting Black people in a very poor country. I was an outsider racially, economically, and culturally. I had to address that immediately and keep addressing it throughout.” Despite Russell’s status as outsider, she understands the power of being part of a team with scientists, nutritionists, community leaders, and local farmers. Like Russell, they see solutions for treating sick and malnourished children. Together, they share how it can be done, in sustainable ways, if we all work together.

I spoke to Russell on Zoom, and we talked about the personal and professional challenges of writing a book like this, why the responsibility of ending childhood malnutrition belongs to all of us, and how we can help.

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The Rumpus: You tackle a massive subject with this book, childhood malnutrition worldwide, but the title, Within Our Grasp, expresses hope. How does the juxtaposition of vulnerability with power and bleak statistics with hope, inform this book?

Sharman Apt Russell: This is a massive subject. Nearly a quarter of the world’s children are stunted or wasted because of a lack of food or nutrients, and most of these children live in stable, peaceful countries. They are not the product of war or conflict. Even in America, one of the world’s wealthiest countries, the CDC estimates that 15% of pregnant women and toddlers are iron-deficient. Iron, particularly, is crucial for neurological development. Too little iron can result in learning disabilities, increased anxiety. That’s huge.

To be honest, as a writer, one aspect of writing this book was actually to celebrate vitamins and minerals. To celebrate the human body. To celebrate nourishment as much as to talk about malnourishment. To me, it’s still a miracle. Every day, we take in the world—iron, zinc, iodine, the nitrogen and carbon in proteins and fats—and we turn all that into who we are. I say in the book, “We look into the periodic table. It’s like looking into a mirror.”

Most importantly, though, I would never have written about this subject—certainly not an entire book, knowing I would be living with it for years—if there wasn’t hope. We actually now have the ability to end the majority of childhood malnutrition. Particularly in the last twenty years, we have learned so much about the role of vitamins and minerals in prevention and treatment. Through trial and error, we’ve learned about the importance of sustainable agriculture, equitable food systems, empowering women, childcare practices, sanitation, and disease. This holistic approach is relatively new.  I think hope is our best strategy, if we want to take action. We don’t really get energized by hopelessness.

Rumpus: You mentioned “stunting,” which plays a big part of this book. Can you please explain exactly what this is and why it’s so important in the fight to end childhood malnutrition?

Russell: Most malnourished children are what doctors call “stunted,” having experienced a period of faltered growth in their early years. Stunting is shorthand for a range of problems that continue through adulthood—cognitive problems, emotional problems, physical problems. Most malnourished children do not die. They go on to lead lives of diminished potential.

Rumpus: The production and distribution of RUTF (ready-to-use therapeutic foods) play a big part in treating stunting and malnutrition in developing countries, war-torn, and relief areas. I loved how you tackled this subject in the book.

Russell: RUTF is a terrible acronym, but a wonderful technology. They’re a tasty oil-based paste, with just the right amount of vitamins, minerals, and calories that a severely malnourished child needs to survive. This paste comes in a convenient tear-open foil packet without any need for clean water or refrigeration. At the end of the last century, before RUTF, we used to send severely malnourished children to hospitals and feeding centers where they were exposed to disease, or given the wrong kind of food. As many as half of these children died. Now, much more successfully, these very sick kids are given a supply of RUTF and sent home to be cared for by their parents. RUTF really represents our new understanding of how a child’s body and brain develop in the first years of life.

Rumpus: You are careful to show how there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” recipe or solution when it comes to RUTF. After living in sub-Saharan Africa myself, I appreciated how you include vital truths in the book, like using available ingredients, and challenges with refrigeration and storage. Why is it important for us to consider these factors when developing these products?

Russell: RUTF is a specific food-medicine for a specific condition. The breakthrough, partly, was to see food as medicine.

The larger idea of food as something that needs to promote health and be full of nutrients is really important. In America, we used to have our own “goiter belt” in the Northeast until we started fortifying salt with iodine. Similarly, billions of people in the world would benefit if their salt and flour and vegetable oil were fortified with vitamins and minerals. Food fortification is probably one of the fastest and cheapest ways to reduce chronic malnutrition.

Does food fortification mean you don’t need climate-resilient crops, support for smallholder farmers, cash transfers to the poor, free school lunches, empowerment for women that includes property and voting rights and protection from sexual abuse, nutrition counseling, access to family planning, sanitation systems, clean water, or vaccinations from disease? Of course not!  I believe this is the main thing we now understand: You need to address childhood malnutrition in many different ways.

Rumpus: You quote Steve Collins, director of Valid Nutrition, a company that uses locally grown ingredients for RUTF products. Collins says, “I learned that people do what they want to do, not what you want them to do. We were outsiders. We didn’t understand the culture of these people.” This sheds light on our understanding of global aid, doesn’t it?

Russell: Yes, and this is part of our new understanding in the twenty-first century. It’s what we learned, for example, about women’s empowerment in these communities. Someone would start a great program to reduce childhood malnourishment, which would fail, and only afterward they would realize no one had bothered to talk to the women who were actually bearing the children and feeding them. The same thing would happen when the program involved farming—because women do half the farming. We can learn a lot from our history of failure.

There’s a new buzz phrase, “decolonizing aid,” and that’s our future. People in wealthy countries need to provide money and other resources and then we need to get out of the way.

Rumpus: You write about women in the country of Malawi empowering their own communities to end domestic violence, stunting, and malnutrition. How can we, in more developed countries, support local efforts and promote women’s empowerment at the same time?

Russell: I saw women in Malawi who had been given scholarships and help with their education, going overseas to get master’s degrees, or even doctorates. They would get a bigger perspective of the world, which is something we all need.

It’s often as simple as funding existing programs that have grown out of the community and have proven success. There are a lot of wonderful programs in place, and they need support—not only resources, but encouragement and love. Just joining into this general feeling of “We’re in this together, and we can work together to make changes,” is significant.

Rumpus: Ecology plays a big part in your book, too. You see the long-term effects of climate change and how it affects sustenance farmers. And you bring your perspective on the sustainability of our shared resources. What is the relationship between these?

Russell: So many times, I would be talking to a friend, an old environmentalist like me, and she would bemoan population growth as the “real problem,” more important than any other. In fact, ending extreme poverty and childhood malnutrition is a way to reduce population growth. When families know that their children are going to survive and flourish, they have smaller families. When women have access to education and employment, they tend to have smaller families. In so many ways, the goals of the environmentalist and the humanitarian are aligned. We both want clean water and clean air. We both want sustainable agriculture, notably in the form of agroecology and agroforestry. In terms of wildlife, too, we now understand that you have to take care of the people who are living next to wildlife. You can’t ignore the needs of people. We’re all in this together now.

Rumpus: This reminds me of the chapter about the nutritional revolution worldwide, highlighting the United Nations’ seventeen Sustainable Development Goals, a wish list for our planet and its people. In your opinion, are these achievable?

Russell: People have rightfully described Within Our Grasp as optimistic, and then they see me as an optimist, but I see myself more as a pragmatist. For example, at the September 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, experts said that an additional $33 billion a year for the next ten years (on top of what we are now spending) could end most hunger in the world not caused by war and conflict. This echoes what I am saying. Ending the majority of childhood malnutrition is within our grasp, particularly because $33 billion a year is not a lot of money in terms of the world’s wealth. Also, feeding children benefits everyone. It’s a good social investment. It’s good for the environment. Importantly, people generally love children. That love is visceral. It’s biological.

On the other hand, the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals means changes to entrenched systems of power in governments and international corporations. I don’t always feel optimistic about these systems making the shifts they need to make.

Rumpus: How has COVID-19 affected these goals? And global hunger in general?

Russell: We’ve seen that hunger has increased, not so much in places like Yemen or Syria, or any other war-torn area—that can happen any time—but the pandemic has really affected sustenance farmers, and people trying to make a living in the cities, selling things, especially people and places dependent on tourism. COVID-19 has affected these economies, which were already so marginal. These people have been pushed back even further into poverty. Also, they are getting sick, too, and when poor people get sick, they’re even more vulnerable.  So, you do have more hunger, and less money and resources in these communities.

When you look at the billions of dollars that some companies have made during this pandemic, you might expect them to spend some of it on ending childhood malnutrition. I think the pandemic could be an opportunity for people to view money a little differently.

Rumpus: What do you say to people who think our country has enough expenses of its own? How can we afford to spend money on childhood malnutrition in other countries?

Russell: There’s always been controversy about how much our own government gives for international aid, and so many people think we give more than we do—a lot more than we do. Most of our aid is to protect our national interests, not direct food aid. The direct food aid we have given in the past has been counterproductive, in the way it was just dumping our surplus food. There was some progress made under the Obama administration, and we’ve learned a lot of lessons since then.

I think it’s really more reparation than aid because we are causing so many of the problems that poor people in the world face. As we start seeing the effects of climate change, of people struggling with drought and struggling with erratic weather patterns and flooding, we have to accept our responsibility.

We’re also seeing more and more how we’re globally connected. What happens in other countries affects us. One bad thing about the pandemic is that it really focused our attention on our own national trauma, with our own economic concerns and our own health. We’re also living during a political time when most people in our nation feel so divided, so hopeless, so helpless about a lot of things, so it’s hard to look out and see what’s happening in other countries. But I think we will, and I think we have. We are becoming more globally connected. We are moving in that direction. So, it’s going to happen. Back to being pragmatic. We have to hope because we have to act.

Rumpus: I agree we have to act, and that “we” is important. What do you say when someone asks you, “What can I do? I’m just one person?” How do you answer a question like that?

Russell: I think we all struggle with this. One answer, among many, is “Do what you do best.” If you’re good at making money, make money and distribute it to organizations that you believe in. If you’re good at writing, write. If you like talking on the phone, volunteer at an organization that needs this skill. It’s collective action. You’ll be one of many. And there’s no one single action to take. Do what keeps you nourished and engaged.

We can also, of course, vote for people in our own government who are going to be accountable and who understand how connected we all are. All these actions make a difference when a million people are doing them, and then 20 million, and on and on. This makes for real change.

Rumpus: Your book is a balance of personal experience, science, statistics, and inspiration. When you began this work, did you have a formula for structure?

Russell: Most of my previous books are also what I call research-based prose, trying to bring my personal voice and experiences to a subject that usually includes a lot of science or natural history. Structure is often a problem! I can tend to be too kaleidoscopic. For this really difficult subject, I knew I had to engage readers with a story or narrative. Actually, I had two stories which I needed to make into one. The first was the story of RUTF and the “revolution” of dealing with malnutrition in the twenty-first century. The second was about what I saw and did in Malawi. Of course, I couldn’t know what that story was until I went there. I ended up using a relationship I started with hunger and hungry children back in 2004. And I ended up using flashforwards, flashbacks, meta-nonfiction, all the tricks of a complex structure. That kind of thing tends to evolve with the writing.

Rumpus: A lot of people describe you as a science writer, but because I’ve read Hunger and then this book, I see you more like a sociologist.

Russell: Yeah, I know the two books on hunger look different from the other books in the body of my work, but in a way, they’re not. Humans are part of nature, and we’re not separated from nature, and that’s the whole point.

That’s the whole idea of ecology, deep ecology, that we are not separate from nature. So, to write one book that’s really very centered in wildlife, which is what I’m writing now, and then to have another book that’s about childhood malnutrition—for me, they’re connected. A satisfying part of writing a lot of books and having a body of work is to ultimately show the connections between all those things. That’s what we get to have as writers. Our own process. Our own relationship to the mysteries of art and language and being human.

 

 

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Author photo by Emanuel Stamler


Janet Rodriguez is an author, teacher, and editor living in Northern California. She is the author of Making an American Family: A Recipe in Five Generations (Prickly Pear Press, 2022), a family memoir. In the United States, her work has appeared in Hobart, Pangyrus, Eclectica, The Rumpus, Cloud Women’s Quarterly, American River Review, and Calaveras Station. She is the winner of the Bazanella Literary Award for Short Fiction and the Literary Insight for Work in Translation Award, both from CSUS Sacramento in 2017. Her short stories, essays, and poetry usually deal with themes involving morality in faith communities and the mixed-race experience in a culturally binary world. She holds an MFA from Antioch University, Los Angeles. She is currently Assistant Editor of Interviews at The Rumpus . Follow her on Twitter at @brazenprincess. More from this author →