GUATEMALA CITY—The state of malnutrition in Guatemala has reached a critical point. Over 53 percent of the country’s 15 million people live in poverty, and 13 percent are living in extreme poverty. In these conditions, nearly 50 percent of Guatemalan children face malnutrition, a number that swells to 70 percent among the country’s indigenous population.
Malnutrition is a condition that affects children and adults who cannot obtain the necessary macronutrients, vitamins and minerals needed to experience healthy growth. When a child is malnourished, she experiences physical and mental stunting that can cripple her for life. Malnutrition slows brain development, reducing a child’s ability to perform in school while also harming her chances of self-sufficiency and long life. Later in life, adults who were malnourished in childhood face an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, kidney damage and anemia than do their healthy peers. Obesity is also more common among adults who experienced malnutrition in their childhood—because their height is stunted, they more easily become overweight when their metabolisms slow.
Though nutrient deficiency is the direct cause of malnutrition, the forces which lead to that deficiency are as multiple as they are varied. Diarrhea is a common cause of malnutrition, but in the case of Guatemala, simple lack of food is a major issue. Small wages and large families contribute to this issue. When there is not enough food to feed all of their children, parents must choose between letting all of their children go hungry or showing preference for a few of them. In Guatemala, boy children are typically given precedence over girls.
But hunger and malnutrition are not always synonymous. Though some families can afford enough food to send their children to bed with full stomachs, this food is not always nutritious enough to stave off malnutrition. The typical Guatemalan diet revolves around three staple foods: corn, coffee and beans. This diet, as one might expect, is low in protein, vitamins and minerals essential for healthy childhood development.
Even though agriculture is a massive industry in Guatemala, farmers bring home few nutritious fruits and vegetables for themselves, and their wages do not permit them to buy healthy food either. A wage of $3-$4 each day is common, and this wage does not stretch to properly feed most Guatemalan families. If this wage paucity weren’t enough, job security in agriculture is diminishing. Harsh droughts and crippling plant disease have reduced the number of farming jobs nationwide, forcing rural citizens into even deeper poverty.
Thankfully, not all of the news coming out of Guatemala is so grim. In light of these statistics, government officials and private citizens are stirring themselves to act in the face of malnutrition.
Since 2012, the Guatemalan government has been working to provide vitamins and food supplements to the nation’s neediest children. Additional programs have provided farmers with better seeds, encouraged breastfeeding, and promoted high standards of hygiene. Yet while these programs have helped portions of the population, they are not broad or sustaining enough to create lasting change.
Enter the private sector. Where the government is falling short on its commitment to ending malnutrition in Guatemala, the nation’s wealthiest are stepping in. Business magnates and CEOs have formed the Alliance for Nutrition, a group determined to cure the epidemic of malnutrition. These business leaders believe that Guatemala can prosper economically and socially with the defeat of malnutrition, and they are sure that improving the health of all of Guatemala’s people will boost the nation’s human capital, and thus, its fiscal power. They are stepping in to meet aid needs where the government stops, and their work is having a big impact.
One such business leader is Alejandro Biguria, whose various campaigns—including I Have Something to Give (2012) and Wake Up, Guatemala! (2014)—have raised awareness for the nation’s crippling malnutrition rates. One of Biguria’s most famous projects has been a program in which 6,000 well-off Guatemalans spent the weekend living with some of the nation’s poorest families. Participants in this program had the chance to see what life was like for those barely getting by. Government employees and business leaders took part, greatly changing the way these people view poverty.
Another one of Biguria’s projects is still in the works. Called the Casita de los 1,000 Dias (1,000 Days House), the project revolves around building a series of micro-clinics costing $5,000 each to build. These casitas would provide maternal and infant care in rural areas as well as sanitation training, solar energy and classrooms for nutrition and hygiene education. Biguria is still seeking investors and government attention, but for the time being, no casitas have yet to be built.
With the help of groups like the Alliance for Nutrition and individuals like Biguria, there may very well be a means of ending malnutrition in Guatemala. Though the challenge is a tremendous one, there are too many lives at stake to ignore it, a truth about which all Guatemalans are finally becoming convinced.
– Patricia Mackey