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Fresher food, better nutrition, happier families

Guatemala, July 28, 2011

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In the northern highlands of Guatemala, the signs and symptoms of malnutrition are a common sight: stunted growth, underweight bodies and visible fatigue.

According to a study by the United Nations World Food Program, Guatemala has the highest rate of malnutrition in Latin America — and the Alta Verapaz region ranks second in Guatemala for the number of communities at risk.

But Mercy Corps is empowering women to change that. Through a partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Mercy Corps is leading a new, innovative approach to improving food security and nutritional health in Guatemala.

The Mother-Child Community Food Diversification Program (PROCOMIDA in Spanish) is a five-year program that strives to prevent malnutrition before it starts by ensuring that everyone in a community has access to food and health services. Through the program, Mercy Corps distributes food rations to impoverished families and educates mothers and caregivers on their children's nutritional needs, as well as proper food handling and household sanitation.

For 34-year-old Lucia, joining PROCOMIDA with her 16-month old baby, Maria, was a life-changing decision.

As part of the program, Lucia attends monthly educational sessions in her community with other pregnant or nursing women and their babies. These lively sessions are taught in the local language, Q'eqchi, and build on the women's own personal experiences, encouraging dialogue with images and activities that bring to life key nutrition and health messages — many of which are news to mothers who have inherited some outdated lessons.

One such misconception: Breast milk does not quench a baby's thirst. Believing their babies need more hydration, mothers here commonly introduce liquids other than milk too early, and babies don't get the health benefits of exclusive and sustained breastfeeding. PROCOMIDA meetings give mothers the new knowledge to make healthier choices for them and their children. They also participate in monthly cooking demonstrations, learning how to best use their food rations — rice, beans, vegetable oil and corn-soy flour — with more varieties of local produce to prepare nutritious meals.

Since enrolling in PROCOMIDA, Lucia and her 35-year-old husband Mario have seen the health of each family member noticeably improve. Baby Maria in particular is now at a healthier weight, more active and sick less often. Lucia brings what she learns in the lessons back into her home, positively influencing the behavior and lifestyle of the entire family — a first and necessary step in creating sustainable change for generations.

Today, Maria smiles and giggles with joy. Her rosy cheeks are just one hard-to-miss symbol of the possibilities of a program like PROCOMIDA. By teaching one mother — and thousands of others — about better health and nutrition, communities are strengthened to provide a healthier future for their children.