August 29, 2008

Howard Schiffer’s Vitamin Angels: “One Dollar.”

“One Dollar” via Duncan Wright, from elephantjournal.com’s Spring 2006 issue. 

In 1993, former midwife Howard Schiffer was a successful entrepreneur in natural foods, an idealistic capitalist. “But I kept thinking, ‘If I die tomorrow, they’re going to put ‘He sold a lot of products’ on my grave.’’ It wasn’t enough.”

The door opened for Howard after the Northridge, L.A. earthquake. In Fillmore, 350 people were left in a makeshift camp, at risk from opportunistic infections. Direct Relief International called and asked if he supply vitamin and mineral supplements for the victims. Schiffer made some calls, and within a couple of days three pallets of supplements arrived at the camp headquarters. “I remember being stunned

,” says the Honorable Ellen Engleman, now head of the National Transportation Safety Board, “Nutritionals were always in short supply. This was more product than we had ever seen.” Howard saw how important his network of business connections were, and knew that his industry colleagues would be eager to do something meaningful.

Today, Howard’s Vitamin Angel Alliance impacts children and adults in 80 countries around the world. It delivered 23.4 million supplements last year. “If you look at world maps for diseases and high mortality rates, what you see is Africa, Asia, India, some of the Pacific regions,” said Mr. Schiffer recently. “We’re in those areas, we’re in Central America, South America, the Pacific Islands. We’re in Micronesia, Indonesia. In the US, we deal with populations that are poor and not getting enough nutrition. We have some presence in Eastern Europe. We did a big drive after the war in Iraq to help children—we sent a million supplements to a big hospital in Baghdad.” Vitamin Angel has helped Tibetan children grow up without rickets on their limbs and fought childhood Vitamin A Deficiency blindness in India.

The secret to the growth of Vitamin Angels and its significant impact has been efficiency. For the past 11 years “The administrative costs of all programs have run between 1% and 5% of donations received.”The first 10 years were about pulling together the necessary elements: companies to donate nutrients, volunteers, delivery systems (usually partnering with operating charities or NGOs [non-profits] in the countries needing help), and a minimal budget to cover costs.

Supplements are shockingly cheap. In preventing childhood blindness in children in India, “Our cost for purchasing two high-dose Vitamin A capsules—that’s what it takes, one capsule every six months—is a nickel, per child, per year.”When an anti-parasitic is added to the dose (the worms consume 1/3 of what a child eats each day) the cost is increased six cents a year. “Figuring in transportation, training for local distributors, and educational materials,” adds Schiffer, “our costs may go up to 15 cents per child per year. Over six years, the span when most children are vulnerable to childhood blindness, our total expense is less than a dollar.” He shrugs, and raises his hands. “Less than a dollar!” And the sound of that truth is a jolt to the helplessness of those who would otherwise do nothing.

Vitamin Angel’s partners include Johnson & Johnson, UNICEF, Sight & Life, and the World Health Organization. Schiffer explains, “Nobody is arguing about whether vitamin C will cure scurvy, that vitamin A will cure Vitamin-A-Deficiency childhood blindness, that vitamin D and calcium will cure rickets, that prenatal vitamins stop maternal hemorrhaging during childbirth. We know that if you provide this product to this person it’s going to make a difference, and if we provide more product to more people, it’s going to make a bigger difference.” 

Board member Marshall Karp, in a letter to Johnson & Johnson, wrote, “The single fact I find most riveting is that the solution [to Vitamin A deficiency childhood blindness] is so close at hand. This is not a disease for which there is no known cure. This is not a medical enigma that will require billions of dollars and many years of research to resolve. This is a problem for which there is a readily available, low cost, low-tech solution.” Johnson & Johnson responded by funding a three-year pilot of the Vitamin A/Childhood Blindness Prevention campaign which is currently meeting the needs of two million children and lactating moms in India.

“One quarter of all humanity—1.4 billion people—live in absolute poverty,” says Howard. “And according to UNICEF, one in seven of all people, 857 million, are chronically undernourished. Vitamin Angel could do 100 times what we’re doing today. We could begin to impact entire countries.” Thus, Vitamin Angel started to display counter cards in 500 retail stores. “Be an Angel. Save a Life. Save a Life. $1. Save Five. $5.” As it says on the back of the cards; “It seems almost inconceivable. But one dollar can actually save someone’s life. Lack of basic nutrition causes more deaths each year than heart disease, cancer or AIDS. Most of these deaths are preventable.” Powerful stuff!

Duncan Wright is the Arts Editor of the Santa Barbara Independent, & a graduate student in Pre- & Perinatal Psychology at the Santa Barbara Graduate Institute.

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