The Invisible Crisis
Chronic malnutrition plagues 7 out of 10 Mayan children, the fourth highest rate in the world.
Malnutrition and starvation are commonly confused. With starvation, a person doesn’t have enough food to sustain life. Malnutrition, on the other hand, occurs when a diet doesn’t have enough of the essential nutrients needed for proper health and development.
The Mayan people eat primarily corn and beans. This diet lacks the protein and essential vitamins and minerals needed to thrive. What’s more, a lack of clean drinking water contributes to diseases that take away any nutrients they may be getting.
Effects of Chronic Malnutrition
The effects of chronic malnutrition can be devastating, both physically and developmentally. Worldwide, more than 10 million children under the age of five die each year; more than 5 million of those deaths are the result of malnutrition.
Children who don’t die from malnutrition suffer in other ways. All too often, it leaves children with a number of short and long-term complications that perpetuate the cycle of poverty.
Impaired Immune System
One of the deadliest effects of malnutrition is impaired immunity. Without a wide range of proper vitamins and minerals, the immune system weakens and the body is unable to produce the antibodies needed to ward off infection. As a result, malnourished children often die from preventable infectious diseases.
Nutrition and brain function go hand in hand. Children who are malnourished—especially in the first few years of life, which are crucial for proper development—tend to have lower IQs and more behavioral problems.
Chronic malnutrition creates a cycle that is difficult to break. As the ability to learn effectively decreases, impaired school performance—and drop out rates—increase. The lack of education means fewer job opportunities. With no ongoing income or sustainable skills, the cycle of poverty and malnutrition continues.
- Ability to learn decreases
- School dropout increases
- Job opportunity decreases
- Poverty cycle and malnutrition increases
Stunted growth is one of the most widespread effects of malnutrition and occurs when children fail to meet the height and weight requirements of their age group.
Stunted growth is cyclical and can begin before birth. Mothers who don’t get proper nutrition during pregnancy often give birth to malnourished, low birth weight babies.
A Closer Look at Poverty
What is Poverty?
How we define poverty plays a major role in how we attempt to alleviate it. If you’re like most people in developed countries, you probably define poverty as a lack of basic necessities—things like food, clothing, safe housing, and so forth.
When you ask someone in a developing country what poverty means to them, however, their answer is quite different. In the world’s poorest countries, the definition of poverty centers around the feelings it invokes: shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness.*
For the Mayans in Guatemala, poverty is not a lack of material possessions or even a lack of food. It’s the shame that comes from not being able to provide for their families. It’s the powerlessness of not knowing where or how to change their situation. In short, it’s a lack of hope.
Treat the Cause Not the Symptoms
With this in mind, an effective solution to poverty needs to address their definition of poverty rather than our own. It needs to address the root cause, not the symptom. In Guatemala, a lack of nutritious food is the symptom of a greater cause—the lack of knowledge and tools needed to feed their families.
Giving money or donating food treats a symptom. By treating the symptoms and not the cause, we’re potentially causing harm. We’re creating a cycle of dependence rather than independence.
Sustainable impact happens when you understand the real need—when you treat the disease and not just the symptom.
The relationships we build with the local Mayans are the foundation of Cultiva, helping us to understand their real needs. By living in Guatemala and working alongside them as their friends and neighbors, we’re provided an intimate look at their culture, language, and day-to-day lives.
The more we listen and learn about their culture and values, the better we understand their needs and how we can truly help empower them with the hope, confidence, and skills to help themselves.
With that in mind, we’ve developed our proven approach:
Hands-on classes teach families the seed-to-plate concept and self-sustainable skills.
Completing classes earns them their own garden box that they help install and plant together with volunteers.
Monthly visits are made to each home to answer questions and provide ongoing education.
Once they’ve finished, families can repeat the same class or participate in other classes, like composting, to earn additional boxes or other projects. Either way, the support keeps coming!
By replacing dependency with independence and by showing instead of doing, we promote a real cycle for change—we address the cause, not the symptom.
A story of change
Living on just 480 quetzals (about $65) a month, Juan was trying to support his wife and three kids by cutting down trees and other odd jobs. His life changed when he learned how to square foot garden and started teaching others to do the same.