Mercy Corps and USAID mark one year of malnutrition prevention program in Guatemala

Guatemala, November 4, 2010

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Novel approach will focus on preventing malnutrition in children under two

Washington, D.C. – The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Guatemala and Mercy Corps will mark the successful completion of the first year of implementation of a $50 million innovative, five-year health and nutrition program in four municipalities in Alta Verapaz, a state with some of the highest poverty rates in Guatemala. The program employs a new approach to nutrition programming: preventing malnutrition in pregnant mothers and very young children before it starts.

Mercy Corps’ Maternal-Child Diet Diversification Program, called Programa Comunitario Materno Infantil de Diversificación Alimentaria (PROCOMIDA) in Spanish, began providing critical nutrition and health services to pregnant and lactating mothers and children under the age of two in the impoverished Alta Verapaz region in 2009. The ground-breaking strategy was initially developed by USAID and its cooperating sponsor World Vision Haiti and is designed to protect all children against malnutrition rather than selectively treating them after they display health and developmental problems.

USAID and Mercy Corps expect PROCOMIDA to have a transformative affect on one of the most food insecure regions in the hemisphere. “Traditional food programs address the needs of children who are already malnourished,” said Jay Jackson, director of PROCOMIDA. “Mercy Corps’ PROCOMIDA prevents malnutrition rather than reacting to it. We are confident this will be a more effective way to help children to avoid negative, lifelong health effects.”

Through PROCOMIDA, the USAID and Mercy Corps partners are joining their extensive local experience and global expertise in maternal and child health to improve the nutrition of 33,000 residents of 573 rural communities in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. The program’s preventive, approach will meet the needs of all children under two years of age in the region, building on the success of a similar U.S.-supported program in Haiti, and includes ongoing methodology research and evaluation.

In the first year, PROCOMIDA conducted baseline research of families’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviors related to family health and nutrition and indentified recipes and ingredients common to the region for use with commodities to be distributed under the program. PROCOMIDA distributed 12,680 food rations to families, providing women and other caregivers with a nutritionally balanced ration, and is working with families and local health centers to train them in the adoption of healthier eating practices. PROCOMIDA will lay the foundation for lasting improvements in child health and nutritional status by utilizing behavior change communication tools such as mother education sessions on healthy pregnancy and infant care.

“USAID is committed to helping Guatemala address the disturbingly high rate of chronic malnutrition among poor children and to vigorously evaluate this experience so that we may share with others the lessons from this innovative approach to prevent maternal and child malnutrition,” said Mr. Kevin Kelly, Director of USAID in Guatemala.

PROCOMIDA is complementing the feeding component with improved health services. With support from and coordination with Guatemala’s Ministry of Health, USAID is bolstering the work of local government health facilities and community health centers to better address child and maternal heath issues. To date, USAID is working with 221 such health facilities in four municipalities.

“PROCOMIDA will illustrate that empowering women with the resources they need – food and health services – benefits families and communities,” explained Penelope Anderson, Mercy Corps director of food security.

Guatemala has the worst rate of chronic malnutrition in Latin America and one of the highest rates in the world. The situation is most severe among poor indigenous populations and often results in lifelong physical and cognitive impairments. According to the 2008-2009 Demographic and Health Survey (ENSMI—Encuesta Nacional de Salud Materno Infantil) 43.3% of children under five years old are malnourished and in Alta Verazpaz child malnutrition rates are 60% or higher.

Mercy Corps has worked in Guatemala since 2001. USAID|Guatemala programs have worked in land conflict mediation, building agricultural knowledge and production for poor indigenous populations, improving child and maternal healthcare in rural areas, engaging youth around HIV/AIDS awareness and improving local capacity and civil society so communities can better address their own needs.