UNICEF is ramping up its efforts to help American kids get active and save lives, and it’s using tech to do it.
Two years after it officially launched its Kid Power fitness bands, which help kids convert their daily steps into life-saving nutrition for malnourished children in the developing world, the organization has launched a free app for people of all ages to use their physical activity for good.
The UNICEF Kid Power app, now available for iOS and Android, tracks your activity through your smartphone the iPhone’s Health app, for example or through your Jawbone, Apple Watch, or other fitness trackers connected to your phone. Every 2,500 steps you take earns you a point, and 10 points “unlock” a ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) package that UNICEF, through the program’s sponsors, will deliver to a child with severe acute malnutrition.
The objective is to get even more kids involved in saving lives and to be more active, even if they can’t get a Kid Power band. And now with the app, adults can get in on the action, too.
“Our goal is to get a million kids in America to be saving the lives of a million kids around the world,” said Caryl M. Stern, president and CEO of UNICEF USA. “[But] you can do the Kid Power program and be an adult We don’t think [the mission of] ‘get active, save lives’ is restricted to children only.”
“Our goal is to get a million kids in America to be saving the lives of a million kids around the world.”
Easy access is a priority in all of UNICEF’s educational and philanthropic programs, Stern said, and the Kid Power app is no different. That’s why it works with the apps and tech people are already using.
“This is about finding us where you are, not making you go search for us,” she said.
Kid Power has certainly evolved since it began as a small pilot program in Sacramento, California, in October 2014. After seeing the pilot’s success kids who participated were 55 percent more active than those who didn’t, and they earned enough points to feed 473 severely malnourished children it expanded to schools in New York, Boston, Dallas, and other cities. In October 2015, UNICEF teamed up with Target to sell Kid Power fitness bands for $39.99, to further raise money for its efforts helping malnourished children.
Now, 170,000 students are in the school program, receiving Kid Power bands and participating in all 50 states. That’s three times the number of kids as last year, according to Stern. Most of them are students are at Title I schools, with low-income backgrounds, who otherwise might not have access to something like the Kid Power fitness band.
While there are alarming food levels across Africa and the Middle East, right now UNICEF is directing the funds and RUTF packages that result from the Kid Power program to South Sudan and the surrounding region. More than 2.5 million kids are at risk of imminent death due to the famine there, and Stern said they made a decision to focus efforts on where it’s needed most: South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, and Yemen.
“It’s really a horrible time for children around the globe,” she said. “We’re facing our largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. We’ve got over 50 million on the move at the moment, 28 million of them forcibly removed from home. And that’s being exacerbated right now by water scarcity and drought in South Sudan and the region.”
Children who suffer from severe acute malnutrition aren’t just malnourished and hungry they’re nine times more likely to die of a disease than a well-nourished child. Stern said a mother once told her she was making rock soup simply boiling rocks in water for her children, because she had to believe the minerals were better than nothing.
“It is unconscionable that children should be dying in the year 2017 that anyone should be dying in the year 2017 due to lack of food,” Stern said.
The RUTF packages are innovative because, unlike previous iterations that help children who are malnourished, they don’t need to be refrigerated, solving the problem of keeping things cold in travel. It also doesn’t need to be cooked or mixed with water, so it’s particularly helpful in a drought region like South Sudan.
At its core the Kid Power program’s mission is, like many of UNICEF’s initiatives, to inspire kids helping kids.
“It is unconscionable that children should be dying in the year 2017 … due to lack of food.”
That’s why UNICEF USA dubbed May “Kid Power Month,” with pop-up events in cities like Atlanta and Los Angeles, featuring characters from Star Wars and games to connect with kids in the area, especially from Title I schools. The last event of the month just took place in Chicago on Saturday.
Stern said these events were “fun family days with a purpose,” with hundreds of people participating in each experience and learning more about what it means to “get active, save lives” year-round.
“What makes Kid Power really fun is that it can be done by a child. It can be done by an adult. It can be a family experience. It can be a workplace experience. It really is about taking responsibility for your own health in a way that saves the life of another human being,” she said.
And the initiative is not just at events and on the app people across the U.S. are using social media to spread awareness about the program and the issues to a larger audience. They’re flocking to YouTube to show off how they use their fitness bands for a good cause: a young woman who gets up with her grandmother every day at 5 a.m. to get their steps in; a third-grade classroom talking about what Kid Power means to them; a mom who took a video of her her son walking around the dining room table while he did his reading.
“It’s been really fun to see how they’re amplifying their own voices,” Stern said. “They see themselves as a movement. This is not just ‘I’m doing this’ or ‘my class is doing this,’ but ‘I’m part of something bigger than myself,’ and that’s been really fun.”
And that’s in line with UNICEF USA’s short-term goal for Kid Power: “get the word out, get the word out, get the word out.” Stern said it’s about getting America healthy as much as it is about saving the lives of children overseas.
As a mother herself, Stern talks to parents all the time about what they want for their children. Ultimately, every parent wants them to have a hot meal and tuck them into a warm bed. If you can’t even ensure that for the world’s children, she explained, what kind of progress have we made?
“I recognize that at my age, I probably won’t be around to see all the solutions,” Stern said. “But the best legacy I can leave is to empower the next generations to do a better job than I did.”
Update, Tuesday May 23, 11:43 a.m. ET: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that the Kid Power app is compatible with Fitbit.