Cindy Rothschild Kaplan '90: Spoon By Spoon

This article was originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of Cyrus.


When Cindy Rothschild Kaplan '90 discovered an unmet need in global children's health, she made it her mission to fill the void.

After adopting and bringing her malnourished son back to health, Kaplan was haunted by the fact that other children were sick and dying due to improper feeding. Looking to help organizations working on the problem but finding none, Kaplan co-founded her own. Now in its 10th year, SPOON creates and shares tools that bring critical nutrition and feeding practices to children who often go unseen.

Question: You adopted your son from an orphanage in Kazakhstan. How did that experience impact your decision to co-found SPOON?
Answer: After meeting my son, I saw that not only was he failing to thrive and super undernourished, but the way he was being fed was very dangerous. He was being fed much too rapidly for his little body. It's common in institutions for kids to be fed through bottles that have cut nipple holes, so the flow is really fast. It's like an adult trying to drink from a fire hose. When you can't keep up and can't swallow, gravity takes the food down and instead of going to the stomach, it goes to the lungs where infection can happen. For instance, my son had pneumonia twice before we met him at 6 months.

Q: Can you talk about what needs SPOON fulfills that other organizations don't meet?
A: A lot of global organizations address nutrition and child welfare, but they tend to take a community-based approach, delivering services at centers where families can bring their kids or through home-visit programs for vulnerable families. But kids without families and kids who are isolated from their community are left behind. SPOON exists to fill that gap.

Q: How did you educate yourself on how to meet these needs?
A: Our first call was to a doctor at the University of Minnesota, Dana Johnson, who had started an international adoption clinic many years ago and is a world-renowned expert in orphan health. He had helped review the health information for our son, and when I met him again at a conference, I told him what I was hoping to do through SPOON. He immediately agreed to join our board and helped bring on experts who made up for what we didn't know. I also serendipitously connected with the former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan. He was the next addition to our board and helped us understand how international development works. So it was a matter of recognizing all we didn't know and getting people who did to guide us along the way.

Q: What excites you about this work?
A: I'm very excited about the work we're doing worldwide to prevent institutionalization as a cultural norm and to prepare kids to leave institutions and go home. Kids with disabilities and in institutions such as orphanages are generally not reached by community programs because of stigma or because their needs are so specialized that programs offered by big organizations or governments don't accommodate them. This puts them at greater risk of being institutionalized. SPOON is doing more work to equip communities to care for these kids and to train families about how to bring them home. We're doing this in orphanages internationally and in U.S. foster care.

Q: How do you measure success?
On many different levels. We measure it at the level of the individual child. Is a child who's being served by our program growing? Are they being safely fed? Another level is institutional. Is the orphanage or center preparing the food right? Are there good hygiene and sanitation practices? Are they using the right size spoons and bottles? Are the caregivers compassionate with the children? And then we look at the governmental level. What are their policies and procedures? In Kazakhstan, for example, we were able to change the national diet and nutrition standards in all of the country's orphanages. We have aspirations to affect policy change on a global level as well.

Q: How do you see SPOON evolving?
A: SPOON has worked in 14 countries in Asia, Africa and the former Soviet Union, yet we have only scratched the surface of need. We estimate about 10 million kids live in orphanages and about 500,000 kids live in U.S. foster care alone, and then there are millions more with disabilities. So there's a lot of work left to be done, and we want to be increasingly strategic about how we do it. Our focus right now is to go deep in a few countries. Vietnam is one we've selected. Zambia is another, and there will probably be a third in a different part of the world. We want to partner with local NGOs and national governments to influence change and collect data that can help global decision-makers improve policies and procedures. Our hope is to get these kids increasingly included in global health and nutrition efforts, to get them more included in their own country's programs and to keep them included in their families.

To learn more about SPOON visit or contact Cindy at