A government scheme backed by UN agencies, including the World Food Programme, provides critical assistance to vulnerable people in remote locations
By L. Alejandro Arriola
I met Paola and baby Eunice last July in the department of San Marcos, Guatemala.
They live in a small rural town which sits at the highest point of the municipality of Tejutla. At 8 months old, Eunice was diagnosed with acute malnutrition.
The news was devastating for Paola, but brigadistas — volunteers and staff of the Government’s health and nutrition brigades — are luckily at hand to provide the supplements and other medications Eunice will need to recover.
Brigadistas go door-to-door to detect and treat cases of acute malnutrition in areas with high levels of food insecurity.
Launched in 2019 by the Guatemalan Food and Nutrition Security Secretariat and the Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance, the initiative was expanded last year across the regions where people were in the greatest need.
The World Food Programme (WFP) backs 30 brigades in the departments of San Marcos, Sololá, Retalhuleu and Chimaltenango, while the UN Development Programme and UNICEF finance Brigades in other parts of Guatemala.
When we left the area after our short visit, I asked myself if Eunice would be OK and how the family was getting by during the pandemic.
Fortunately, I was able to check up on the family at home three months later.
Paola lives together with her husband Emanuel, 25, their four daughters and Emanuel’s parents in a one-bedroom house.
The family depends on subsistence farming for food but Emanuel had not been able to harvest potatoes. Like so many others in the community, he lost his job — the family’s main source of income — because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In San Marcos, an agricultural area affected by years of erratic weather, acute food insecurity affects nearly 352,000 people; 30 percent of its population.
Paola was not able to breastfeed her daughter, either. The family tried to feed Eunice atole (a hot cornflour drink) and some solid foods, but Eunice’s feeble body rejected them. Days passed, and the situation worsened.
Thanks to the nutrition brigades, Eunice’s health has vastly improved since the last time I saw her. “She’s been gaining weight little by little… finally growing,” says Paola.
Andrea Chavarría, a paediatrician at the Centre for Comprehensive Maternal and Child Care in Tejutla, is also pleased with Eunice’s recovery. Although the baby has a lingering cough, she has fully regained her height and weight — key nutritional indicators. During my visit, the doctor supplied Paola with some medicine for Eunice and confirmed that the baby is no longer malnourished.
“I’m so relieved she has recovered,” says Emanuel.
Government health and nutrition brigades not only detect cases of malnutrition, they also provide immediate treatment so that young girls and boys can recover their health.
While Guatemala’s Ministry of Health continues to monitor Eunice’s nutritional status, Paola and Emanuel still face food insecurity and the challenge of supporting their other three daughters, all aged under 5.
After months without income to sustain his family, the work market is starting to look up for Emanuel. He works small jobs on neighbouring lands, earning the equivalent of just under US$5 each time.
“I keep my spirits high to continue fighting for them,” he says.