A Little Fish Can Go a Long Way

When does a lump of iron save lives? When it looks like a fish, and you cook it up with your evening meal. 

Christopher Charles, a Canadian epidemiologist, was studying anemia in Cambodia, and discovered that almost half the children and pregnant women in the area were anemic because of poor diet. Chronic iron deficiency was leading to exhaustion, mental and physical weakness, and developmental problems in children; and women were sometimes so anemic that they hemorrhaged to death in childbirth.

In the first world, anemic people can get stronger simply by eating more iron rich foods or by taking an over-the-counter supplement.  Even cooking meals in an iron pot can help, as the iron leeches into the food. But in Cambodia, a typical daily menu includes two meals of rice and maybe a little fish or vegetables. Iron supplements are expensive and hard to distribute, and even iron pots are too expensive for most.

And so, according to a 2014 article in The Atlantic 

 Charles distributed blocks of iron to local women, telling them to place the blocks in their cooking pots before making soup or boiling drinking water. The women promptly put them to use as doorstops.

He had to rethink his strategy. A good idea is only a good idea if people will actually use it. So instead of distributing the iron in formless lumps, he tried shaping the iron into a fish -- specifically, one local to the communities he hoped to help

After talking with village elders, Charles learned of a fish known as try kantrop, which the locals ate frequently and considered a symbol of good luck. When he handed out smiling iron replicas of this fish, women started cooking with them. “People associated it with luck, health, and happiness,” he says. Within 12 months, Charles reports, anemia in villages where the fish was distributed virtually disappeared.

The BBC picked up the lucky iron fish story yesterday, and reports:

Around 2,500 families in Cambodia are now using the iron fish and the Lucky Iron Fish company has distributed nearly 9,000 fish to hospitals and non-governmental organisations in the country.

In the Atlantic article, Charles notes that the Lucky Iron Fish initiative works in Cambodian villages because it's designed with Cambodian villagers in mind. 

“If we were to go to sub-Saharan Africa,” says Charles, “or a dry area where fish is not an important part of the diet, we could very easily change it to a different symbol of luck.”

This story is heartening enough in itself, but some comparisons are irresistible. The story of salvation is more or less one of the population wandering around, sick, weak, and impoverished, stunted and languishing. Here comes someone to save us! "Here, take some grace!" He says from the mountaintop. It's His law, all we really need, in the form of two stone tablets.

But no, we don't ike that. It's too lumpy. We use it as a doorstop. So He thinks on it a bit, and give us the same thing, but in a more familiar shape: a fish, something we already like and accept, something we can easily include in our routine. "Take and eat!" He says. Which we do. And there sits the fish, cooking away in the bottom of our souls, quietly enriching us from the inside out. As the Lucky Iron Fish site says, "A little Fish can go a long way!"

I don't mean to cast this Canadian philanthropist as some kind of white God, mind you. It's just a little analogy; take it or leave it! In any case, as with the Shoe That Grows project, you can get involved. For $25, you can buy five Lucky Iron Fish to be distributed by NGOs in Cambodia (or, if you like, you can have one fish sent to you and one to Cambodia); or for $20, you can send two fish to Cambodia and receive a fish lapel pin for yourself.  May their work prosper! 

Shannon Mullen, Editor-in-Chief of CNA

Meet CNA’s New Editor-in-Chief, Shannon Mullen (July 31)

A new era has begun at the Catholic News Agency even as the news cycle continues to bring challenging stories both inside the Church and around the world. This week on Register Radio, we get to know Shannon Mullen, the new editor-in-chief of CNA. And then, we are joined by the Register’s Washington Correspondent, Lauretta Brown, to catch up on the latest pro-life news from the nation’s capital.