Catarina Pascual Jiménez is a soft-spoken but resilient woman who lives in the Cuchumatanes mountains of Guatemala. The name of the mountain range means "what was brought together by superior force" in Mam, a Mayan dialect.
Catarina has overcome great adversity in her life. Not only was she born into an impoverished family, she was born with just one functioning eye. Her first husband died, leaving her to raise her two oldest children, Antonio, 17, and Juana, 6, alone. A few years later, Catarina became pregnant with twins but was abandoned by their father soon after she told him the news. She was heartbroken but determined to raise the babies by herself.
This mother and her children, like the mountains where they live, were brought together by a superior force. Alexander and Sheili, 17 months, were welcomed into the world by a strong, loving mother, but hunger, chronic malnutrition, and sickness were also awaiting the twins.
Catarina struggled to care for her family as a single mother, and she and her family fell into deeper poverty. For even the basics of everyday living, Catarina must borrow. The family lives in a house owned by a neighbor, where they use one room as a kitchen, bedroom, and more. The family doesn’t own any land or animals that they can use to raise their own food. She must borrow even simple tools like a knife to prepare food or an ax to chop wood for a fire.
"I have gone without in order to give my children food to eat," she says. "I have risked my life, my health in order to give them food each day and make sure they grow healthy and strong."
Catarina hand washes piles of laundry for 20 quetzales (the equivalent of about $2.50) each as her way of making a living. But the work is scarce in a village where few people can afford such a service. In the best scenario, Catarina would be making a little more than $1.25 per day, which would put her above the World Bank poverty line. Still, feeding a family of four on this budget is challenging, especially because her twins are still in the 1,000-day window, the time between the start of a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday. During this period, proper nutrition is key to preventing the profound, and often irreversible, effects of malnutrition — including lower learning capacity and future earning potential.
Every day, Catarina asks God "for strength to feed my children and to keep them healthy." She felt her prayers were answered when she learned of a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) food-aid program available to women with children under 2.
Catarina enrolled in the new Program of Integrated Actions on Food Security and Nutrition in the Western Highlands (Paisano) and receives a monthly ration of rice, beans, fortified corn-soy flour, and oil. Receiving these staples frees up some of her income, which she can use to buy fruits, vegetables, sugar, salt, oatmeal, and other items to supplement her family's diet, an option she didn't have before. Most importantly, she can now give her children three meals a day, definitely a nutritional boost for the twins, who exhibited the negative effects of early malnutrition.
"Before we entered the program, sometimes I didn't sleep — I'd lay awake all night, and I'd ask myself how I was going to make it," Catarina says. "My children are my happiness, the reason I live and fight and meet the challenges of life. Now that I am a beneficiary of the program, I don't feel as much worry about food anymore."
Catarina no longer has to "see my children suffer because of the food shortages we experienced." However, this is only the beginning of her path out of hunger and toward food security. The Paisano program takes a holistic approach to combat hunger and child malnutrition, with training on savings, hygiene, food preparation, and farming. These training sessions are helping families improve their economic productivity; reduce chronic malnutrition among pregnant and lactating women and children under 2; and increase resilience to natural disasters. For Catarina, the training she is receiving will enable her to provide a better life for her children.
"I am very grateful to the program," she says. "I feel happier now, more content."
Catarina and her children are proof of the good that U.S. food aid does in meeting the needs of hungry people. Still, while U.S. food aid saves millions of lives each year, smart reforms can make it even stronger and make it easier for more people like Catarina to escape poverty and feed their children.
U.S. food-aid products provide much needed calories but often fall short in addressing the nutritional needs of children like Alexander and Sheili. Improved nutritional quality would help more children escape the scourge of malnutrition. The practice of obtaining food close to the source of need, called local and regional purchases (LRP), would also bolster food aid, allowing better quality food aid to reach those in need more quickly.
As a nation, we are going to great lengths to help our brothers and sisters around the world, but reforming our food aid programs would allow us to do so much more. Making these needed reforms will ensure that more families like Catarina’s will no longer just survive but prosper.
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