The man who wouldn't let the world go hungry

Updated: Mar 15, 2020, 08:54 IST | Prutha Bhosle | Mumbai

A new documentary available to watch online traces the work of international nutrition pioneer Alan Berg, whose successful but little-known India stint helped saved millions of lives

Alan Berg at an exhibition of his photographic work. Berg was a gifted photographer but gave up his passion after a newspaper critic said his images suggested he was using malnourished children for his own benefit
Alan Berg at an exhibition of his photographic work. Berg was a gifted photographer but gave up his passion after a newspaper critic said his images suggested he was using malnourished children for his own benefit

In a red tee under a blazer, roomy trousers and a hat, an 88-year-old man saunters through the door of an old building. Just as he reaches his car stationed in the lot, he turns to look into the camera and smiles. This is Alan Berg. "I think it is a great idea to make a film on him [Berg]; he is deeply embarrassed by it," says a family friend as the camera moves into a small office, where the documentary, A Full Bowl: The Alan Berg Story, was shot.

The 50-minute film that recently dropped on YouTube is made by American filmmaker, photographer and writer Theo Schear. It is an ode to a man who made remarkable efforts to combat hunger and malnutrition during the JFK and Johnson years in the White House where he led Food for Peace, a food aid programme that used US food surpluses in ways that would benefit both, the United States and help food-needy countries, and later the World Bank as Senior Nutrition Officer (1972-95). Most notable was his widespread implementation of strategies to address malnutrition, especially among children and pregnant women through a career that spanned half a century. It was no wonder that he was called "the conscience of the Bank on hunger issues".

"Two years ago, it struck me that Berg has saved millions of lives, but nobody has heard of him. No one in the United States thinks about global malnutrition despite it affecting 900 million people currently across the world," says Steve Schear, Theo's father, who has co-produced the documentary with Jodie Levin-Epstein. The 69-year-old lawyer is Berg's second cousin. "Berg and I grew up in Dayton, Ohio. Our mothers were close, and grew closer when Berg's father passed away when he was just two. He is 20 years older to me, so I began to get to know him much later in life."

An undated picture shows Alan Berg delivering a talk in IndiaAn undated picture shows Alan Berg delivering a talk in India

Berg grew up in an impoverished family, and that, says Steve, makes this a relevant film. A man who saw poverty, conquered it, and used his skill to eradicate malnutrition plaguing the poor. What will be of particular interest to the Indian viewer is that Berg pulled off a worthwhile stint in India between 1966 and 1970. Recruited by advertising professional and American ambassador to India Chester Bowles, Berg arrived here to work with the government as head of the US government's first national-scale, multifaceted nutrition project. Although he was based in Delhi, he travelled across the country on field work. Between 1966 and '67, Bihar was struck by a drought that threatened to take millions of lives. Berg managed to coordinate large-scale food aid distribution that went on to be recognised as having helped save thousands of lives. The timely intervention earned him the US government's annual award for Outstanding Young Civil Servant in 1968. The following year, he invited Steve to visit him in India. "I had just finished high school. As an 18-year-old, I hitchhiked across Europe and flew from Istanbul to Kashmir, where I met him," says Steve, who travelled through Mumbai, Chennai and Kerala during the six-week trip.

In an interview to Secure Nutrition, Berg had said that if his focus on malnutrition had to be pinned down to a single epiphany, it would have to be hearing a paper presented at a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in 1964. "There, a youngish Mexican pediatrician, Juaquin Cravioto, introduced the notion of a relationship between malnutrition and mental development. I was stunned. For years we had acknowledged the effects of malnutrition on physical development... Now it was being suggested that these kids might be cognitively impaired. And we were talking about as many as two thirds of the children in many developing countries. How could we talk about national development without worrying about this?" he said.

Theo and Steve SchearTheo and Steve Schear

Even after leaving the country, Berg continued to help develop nutrition programmes, including one for Tamil Nadu. He was then with the World Bank as deputy director of the Population and Nutrition Projects Department. "In the first project, severe malnutrition declined by 50 per cent among six to 60 month-olds. In the second project, severe malnutrition numbers fell by 44 per cent and moderate malnutrition, by 23 per cent. An external evaluation of these projects found that malnutrition prevalence fell by 1.5 to 2 per cent every year [during his stint], unequaled by any other large-scale nutrition undertaking during the 1980s and '90s."

Steve says that when the team first screened the film in Washington, where Berg now lives, he was embarrassed. He agreed to file a small address note for the audience, but later refused to give the talk. "He is way too modest to speak of his own work. I think that is what makes him special."

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