Fighting Malnutrition with “Smiling Faces”

María Recinos

The increase in malnutrition among Guatemalan boys and girls is alarming. The problem has worsened with reductions in family income, rising unemployment, and high food prices. Families living in poverty and extreme poverty face conditions that make access to education and quality nutrition difficult, affecting the development and growth of children.

According to Allan Ortiz, coordinator of Caras Alegres, the outlook in urban areas of Quetzaltenango is no different. He says, “Working at this association has allowed me to get to know the problems that families face in regard to nutrition, and how these problems affect their children physically, socially, intellectually, and emotionally.” Caras Alegres has been working in this field for 17 years, offering programs that promote the wellbeing of boys and girls in the community. Caritas Alegres, a group of 70 boys and girls who come to Caras Alegres each afternoon, is a part of this programming. These local children, who were previously a reflection of the malnutrition that Guatemalans face, now benefit from a Community Youth Kitchen.

The basis of the project is one of the Sustainable Development Goals: Zero Hunger. To that end, it seeks to minimize the effects of malnutrition in boys and girls through two efforts. First, boys and girls are given food based on a specific diet that seeks to offer protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins through nutritionally balanced food. Second, it promotes nutritional education, seeking to raise awareness amongst parents so that they can learn about, serve, and eat healthy foods (including grains, soy-based products, and herbs) that are not only economical but also provide nutrients necessary for the growth of their children. Furthermore, it seeks to limit the consumption of junk food, like instant soup, cured meats, and sweets. 

After four years of this project, Caras Alegres has achieved significant results, constantly monitoring the height and weight of children to track their growth and noting increased performance in schools. Children are showing greater mental capacity for solving complex problems and greater acceptance of new foods. Also important are the physical changes children are experiencing, including healthier skin, improved facial expression, and a better mood.

Along with these results emerged a new idea: the creation of vertical gardens to increase the Kitchen’s sustainability, minimizing food costs and creating a link with families and children so they can participate in the planting, maintenance, and care of crops. Implementation of the vertical gardens would not be possible without the contribution of a group of volunteers. One girl, while helping to plant crops, mentioned “Caras Alegres is a safe place where I feel motivated and able to learn new things.”

Without a doubt, great achievements are possible with effort. Thanks to the work of Caras Alegres, these actions can contribute to minimizing cases of malnutrition in the boys and girls of the community. Though there are many challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic or reduced fundraising, these projects continue, impacting the country through the boys, girls, and families who benefit from them.