Photo: A child being given a dose of vitamin A by one of Vitamin Angels’ field partners. According to Vitamin Angels, just two doses of vitamin A per year can help strengthen a child’s immune system and fight off life-threatening diseases that otherwise stem from vitamin A deficiency.
Every year, three million children under the age of five die of malnutrition, accounting for half of all deaths of children in that age group. Malnutrition within the first 1,000 days of life also leads to stunted growth, cognitive impairment, and other developmental problems.1 According to Swiss NGO Humanium (Versoix, Switzerland), the problem of malnutrition is not a result of resource unavailability, but rather, the unequal distribution of resources.2 In other words: childhood malnutrition could be prevented through better resource allocation. One organization, Vitamin Angels (Santa Barbara, CA), is proving this to be true.
Howard Schiffer, founder of Vitamin Angels, has always had a passion for helping children. After working as a midwife in his early 20s, Schiffer transitioned into the nutrition and natural products industry where he learned how to create and market nutritional supplements. What Schiffer didn’t realize at the time was that this career move would be the start of a new social change initiative that would become his passion for 25 years of his life. Over time, he would gain the skills and connections necessary to distribute life-saving vitamins and medications to over 70 million children in 74 countries.
But he didn’t do it alone. For years, Schiffer has relied on the generous support of donors, employees, volunteers, nutrition and dietary supplement industry insiders, and over 1,200 partner agencies all over the world. It was the strength of Schiffer’s vision and his motivation to make an impact that attracted supporters to Vitamin Angels. And now, more than 20 years later, it’s this same common sense of mission and vision that is making the difference between life and death for millions of children all around the world.
How It Started: An Earthquake, a Mortgage, and a House Fire
Over the course of his 14-year career in the natural products industry, Schiffer developed not only promotional and marketing skills, but also an extensive network of industry contacts that included raw materials suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers. Eventually, Schiffer started looking for a new challenge.
“I was in my 40s, and the work wasn’t fulfilling anymore, and it became more of a business than an aspiration,” Schiffer says. “I kept thinking, ‘I should be able to do something with all of these connections.’ And then later, in 1994, an earthquake hit Northridge, California. At that point in time, I owned a vitamin company. I got a call from a relief agency who wanted vitamins for farmers’ families who had been displaced by the earthquake.”
Schiffer placed a few calls to his industry contacts, and soon enough, a crate full of vitamins was on its way to Northridge. But rather than simply go back to business as usual, Schiffer needed to know more. A debriefing session with the agency he’d assisted illustrated the immense need for vitamins all around the world—as well as the positive impact vitamins can have.
“Vitamins are recognized as one of the greatest public health inventions of the last 30 years. When someone told me that just two doses of vitamin A can prevent childhood blindness due to a vitamin A deficiency, it floored me. At the debrief, the agency told me that I have no idea how many vitamins they need. So, I just started calling up people I knew in the industry.”
Schiffer’s calls paid off. All of his contacts told him that donating vitamins and supplements was an initiative they’d always wanted to start, but a lack of know-how was a significant barrier. That’s when Schiffer realized he had the skill set to bridge the gap. Within three weeks, Vitamin Angels was up and running.
Schiffer had found new meaning. In its first year, Vitamin Angels provided 100,000 vitamins to people in need. And armed with a new sense of mission, Schiffer pushed on.
- “Undernutrition contributes to nearly half of all deaths in children under 5 and is widespread in Asia and Africa.” UNICEF. Published online January 2018. https://data.unicef.org/topic/nutrition/malnutrition/#
- “The unequal distribution of resources: The food crisis explained.” Humanium. Published online April 23, 2011.
- Cook E. “$329,000 pledged as Vitamin Angels challenges executives to support global prenatal campaign launch.” www.vitaminangels.com. Published online March 13, 2018.