Publication Date: 2005-02-27
Here is a fable for our times by a noted children's author.
Once upon a time there was a busy, hard-working country that paid scant attention to its children. In their rare moments of leisure, most adults obsessed about their health, but they hardly had time to think of anyone else's.
One day the country's president, a busy man but kind at heart, noticed the country's children. They were weak, listless, and undersized for their age. The president believed that the children were suffering from malnutrition.
He called the nation's best counselors on health to a meeting. It wasn't long before they reached the obvious diagnosis: the adults were so busy they were neglecting the children's nutrition. What the children needed was more and better food. It was time, past time, for a nutrition crusade.
The country had a large cadre of nurses, and the president, backed by his advisers, called on nurses everywhere to feed the children daily. Under the watchful eyes of the nurses, the children would eat together in lrge groups, and they would receive a highly enriched diet.
Most of the nurses loved children, and those who didn't were sure they could learn to love them. They agreed to their new role at once--but the president and his advisers, wisely, felt some objective measure was needed to make sure that the children's condition really did improve.
They argued about what that measure should be. They thought of measuring the children's level of activity, or measuring their height. One sentimentalist even suggested counting the children's smiles per day and number of times a week that they laughed. But finally all those measures struck the president and his advisers as either dangerously subjective or far too complicated and time-consuming. They decided on one simple measurement that would work for all children: every six months, the nurses were to weigh them. This would provide an objective evaluation of
both the children's nutrition and the nurses' abilities. To clarify the goal, the president's advisers set a standard for minimum acceptable weight-gain, and since the children were in such bad condition they set it high.
They told all the country's adults about the new standards, and the adults applauded, relieved that the nurses were going to handle the problem and be in charge of the crusade.
To make sure the nurses took their new role seriously, the president and his advisers told them their jobs were at stake. Any nurse who failed to up-size the children to the minimum weight-gain within a year would be fired. The nurses objected, but nurses are nurses and presidents are
presidents--so in the end, all the nurses could do was acquiesce and go to work.
The president asked the congress to allot money generously for food and feeding stations. The congress consulted their own experts, then voted for half the funds the president had requested. The money was passed to the nurses, who set up the feeding stations, then went out and bought lettuce and turnips, eggs and milk, and many other things. They cooked as well as they could and gathered the children for meals.
Unfortunately, the children weren't terribly cooperative. Many of them had never met a vegetable before and were not enthralled by the first encounter. Many had become so used to malnutrition that they were no longer hungry. To them, food was to play with.
"It will be very bad for you, and bad for us," the nurses threatened, "if you don't eat more!" But the children were unmoved.
Alarmed the nurses warned the president, congress and public that it takes time to change children's dietary habits. In response, the president thundered once more his lifelong motto: "Stay the course! Only a coward backs away from a job!"
Congress and public applauded.
Suddenly added to the nurses' problems was the discovery that the country didn't have nearly enough scales to weigh all the children. As ordered by congress, the nurses set out to buy scales with half the money allotted for food.
Scale-makers had never been much appreciated in the country, but now they found they were revered. They couldn't manufacture fast enough to meet the demand. Many opportunists with no scale-making experience rushed new models into production, and all the scale makers went from feeding station to feeding station showing their wares.
Some of the scales were hastily fabricated and shoddy, but all, naturally, were touted for one reason or another as the best ever made. There were scales that cost more because they would weigh the children faster, scales that cost extra because of their delicacy and precision, scales that cost double because they were made by leading scientists, scales that cost three times as much because there made by secret processes none could question or imitate. Most expensive of all were the scales sold quietly by the cleverest producers, who had seen the scrawny children and understood the nurses predicament. Secretly, they offered scales guaranteed to weigh children ten or more pounds higher than their actual weight.
Meantime, the feeding program continued. Nurses who had thought they loved children began to use long-forgotten tactics with the youngsters in their charge. Children were told that obedience is the first law of life. They were told they couldn't leave the table till they'd eaten everything on their plates. Nurses pulled their hair and twisted their arms if they didn't eat, and so some did learn that obedience is indeed the first law of life.
Yet, as the deadline for the first weigh-in came closer, many nurses became desperate. True, there were children who learned to like turnips and drink their milk. These ran around after lunch and they looked healthier.
But there wasn't much money available to buy food, and the children hadn't gained enough weight to meet the minimum standard. The nurses worried about what to do and consulted with each other in private. Reluctantly, they did what had to be done: they went to the market and bought fifty-pound tubs of lard.
Two nurses together would stand over children and force them to eat lard with a spoon. If children resisted, struggled, one nurse would pin down flailing arms while another would use a funnel and pour melted lard into a young throat, massaging the front of the neck so the lard would stay down.
A few children developed a taste for lard, and they fattened the quickest. Even to the nurses, these children looked grotesque--wider than they were tall, with bulging cheeks. But, fearing for their own jobs, the nurses praised the lard eaters in front of all the children and called them "Conquerors of Malnutrition" and future leaders of the land. After lunch, the lard eaters lumbered proudly among the feeding stations with four gold stars on their foreheads.
But they paid dearly for their prizes. The instant they left the feeding stations, they were attacked by angry, thinner children who pinched and kicked them and ripped off their bright gold stars. Unfortunately for the lard eaters, they'd become too heavy to run, too awkward to escape.
Some children ate a little lard every day, or pretended to eat it so as not to be funnel-fed. Others vomited and left the feeding stations for good, even when nurses told them that all the future held was lard or starvation.
The day of the first weigh-in came. All over the land, thousands of gleaming scales were in their proper places. The nurses were anxious but hopeful. The thinnest children had disappeared from the feeding stations to who cared where, and were no longer the nurses' responsibility. All
the remaining children had fattened. They stood patiently in line to be weighed, while the nurses came to them one by one, seeing to it that they drank a half gallon of water just before they got on the scales.
In the end, ninety percent of children measured had met the first minimum weight-gain standard. All the nurses got bonuses, all the adults got a holiday, and there was a nationwide celebration.
The president spoke on television about the nearly miraculous progress that had been made by a dedicated band of nurses. Leading scale-makers stood beside him and applauded. Interviewed after the ceremony, the scale makers quietly took greatest credit for the success of the crusade.
Without objective measurement, they argued, there would likely have been no improvement at all in children's nutrition. The pointed out how much good had been done, almost overnight, with a little food and a lot of scales. With a little less food, double the scales, and more frequent
weigh-ins, they argued, the success rate in the children's nutrition crusade would reach 100%--and no one, not even the nurses, could deny the logic of that.
Copyright 2000 by Ann Cameron