Perspectives on Hunger: Nourishing Young Brains and Bodies in Rural Honduras
By Ariel Bleth
Bright pink and orange balls scatter as toddlers flex their developing motor-skills. Some sit on the carpeted floor to build teetering creations with blocks, while one or two curious others take advantage of the sunlight, reflected off the yellow-painted walls, and flip through picture books. Most young children from rural households in Honduras are not exposed to toys, games and a clean environment, as are these children from Chiligatoro, a mountainous village in the department of Intibucá. At this early childhood development center, the children are encouraged to learn by doing and are exposed to the basics of shapes, colors, songs and dances in a setting that is fun and nurturing.
This center is an outgrowth of a countrywide effort to promote policies of early childhood care as well as address the severity of malnutrition among Honduran children. Erica Pineda, Save the Children Honduras (STC) staff member and coordinator of the Early Stimulation and Nutrition program, beams with pride at the result of this partnership between STC, Merck, Missoula Medical Aid (MMA) and the local community of Chiligatoro. As coordinator for the 0-3 and 4-6 year old programs, Pineda knows well the daunting reality of chronic malnutrition in her country: one in every four children experiences it. In the rural communities chronic malnutrition can reach 48.5 percent.
According to Pineda, the biggest problems for toddlers are the dirt floors that they crawl on and unhygienic conditions in their homes. Also, she adds, pregnant women often lack knowledge about nutritional needs for healthy gestation. Along with the early stimulation component for the toddlers, therefore, Pineda teaches classes for pregnant and lactating mothers, focusing on the importance of household hygiene and sanitation, nutritional needs for children and mothers—and providing tips for increasing nutrient retention in cooking. She relies heavily on community members, training them to facilitate the educational programs as well as to assist with the monitoring and monthly recording of each child’s height, weight and overall physical development.
Pineda walks to the school’s kitchen and points to the menu on the aqua wall: a large cut-out tree and a dozen yellow bees, words on their bellies. Inside the cooking area is a less-artistically rendered schedule of the seventy or so mothers who rotate through a twenty-four day cycle of meal preparation to ensure a daily, nutritious meal for the children as well as the pregnant and nursing mothers. "We have seen huge benefits for this community since the start of this program, including higher nutritional levels for the youth," shares Pineda. "Most family's meals consist primarily of tortillas and beans. Vegetables are mainly potatoes. With this program, the children receive meat at least once a week and are exposed to more fruits and vegetables."
For STC, improving maternal and child health and nutrition includes addressing issues of education, but also food production, resource management and income generation ─ which is why the center is located at the local primary school, relies heavily on community involvement, and is part of other community efforts to ensure that the whole community thrives and experiences health and well-being. STC field technician, Abel, explains that they work primarily with parent groups or produce cooperatives which determine themselves whom in the community is best suited to facilitate the projects. The rural communities around La Esperanza, where STC Honduras has an office, are invited for an annual meeting to discuss project ideas. Each project must meet three stipulations: sustainability, capacity for expansion and growth, as well as capacity to benefit the greatest number of people. At this point STC draws upon its partnership with a Montana-based NGO, Missoula Medical Aid, requesting funds to support portions of the project needs.
School gardens, for example, have been implemented in the communities that have the Early Stimulation and Pre-Basic Education Centers. Parents are taught the practices of organic soil preparation and zero use of pesticides, and the food grown is used by the mothers to supplement the commodities of rice, beans, corn and oil that the schools receive for student meals. Last year, 2011, this project benefitted 174 boys and girls under the age of six.
In the community of El Tablon, Abel maneuvers through a barbed-wire fence and strides confidently onto a large muddy field in search of the jersey cow named Pichinga. Herbierto Hernandez, president of the Society of Families of El Tablon, is not far behind. Calling and clicking to no avail, they are forced into a stand of tall bushes and return fifteen minutes later pulling the reluctant cow. Pichinga, at the time pregnant, was purchased with MMA funds and donated to teachers and parents of El Tablon as a source of milk to improve the nutritional value of school meals. Hernandez claims that she produces enough milk to feed 140 children a day. STC staff provides technical assistance on cattle management as well as bovine vaccinations and vitamins. They plan on selling her first baby to purchase more cows and to increase school funds, the management of which is overseen by the society (seven board members and sixty-four parents). Hernandez says he has noticed positive changes with the student population, since the implementation of the cattle project, such as increased attendance and motivation.
Apparently, and fortunately, Pichinga’s reticence stays in the field. The success of STC’s two initial Early Stimulation and Nutrition programs, in the communities of Chiligatoro and Pueblo Viejo, has been significant. Based on their monthly reports which monitor the growth and development of 0-6 year olds, 90 percent are gaining healthy weight. Save the Children Honduras attributes this to increased parental involvement, early childhood socialization and exposure to healthy environments, and positive attitude changes among the youth. They are currently planning centers in nine more rural communities.
Photo: Herbierto Hernandez, president of the Society of Families of El Tablon, presents Pichinga, a cow purchased by Missoula Medical Aid to improve the nutritional value of school meals. Photo by Ariel Bleth.