Student’s view: A lesson of malnutrition in Nicaragua

[Editor’s note: This is a guest post written by Meredith Baker. Her bio may be found at the end of the article.]

This past winter break, I had the opportunity as part of my undergraduate program to travel to Nicaragua and participate in community development work. While I have witnessed considerable poverty before, the community of Nuevo Amanecer, Nicaragua, brought me to a new understanding of what abject poverty can mean.

While the people of Nuevo Amanecer have a variety of basic needs, such as access to clean drinking water (they walk three miles a day to get water because local wells are contaminated), malnutrition amongst children is perhaps the most visibly dire. According to a UNICEF report, iron deficiency impairs the mental development of 40%–60% of children in developing countries. It can not only lead to anemia, but is also estimated to lower the GDP of developing nations by 2% due to lower energies and therefore low productivity of the workforce. Vitamin A deficiency leads to destroyed immune systems in children under the age of 5 and approximately 1 million deaths each year.

One hundred families live in Nuevo Amanecer (meaning “New Sunrise” in English), a community founded only a few years ago with the help of the Long Island student group “Students for 60,000.” The community serves as a permanent residence for “squatters,” or people who would have otherwise settled illegally or on public land. It was heartbreaking to see the kids of Nuevo Amanecer running around clothed only in dirty underwear – the only pair some of them owned. Most of the children were very skinny, with twig-like arms and legs, rotting teeth, and swollen bellies as a result of malnutrition and hunger. A few toddlers I encountered had thinning copper-colored hair (hypochromotrichia), a frequent symptom of protein deficiency.

The people of Nuevo Amanecer had a community vegetable garden. However, there were never enough fruits or vegetables to go around. The diet for most consisted predominantly of rice: good for carbohydrates, but lacking many other essential nutrients. This made me wonder if there weren’t an inexpensive, easy way to provide fortified foods to help these kids meet their daily dietary needs. Perhaps if the people of Nuevo Amanacer were educated on the necessary macro and micronutrients their bodies needed, and perhaps if aid organizations were able to provide fortified food or multivitamins in greater supply, the community’s emaciated children could at least begin to look and feel like healthy children their age.

Coincidently, my favorite columnist, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, was also in Central America at the time, writing a column about malnutrition in Honduras, with suggestions for simple, cheap ways to supply people in developing countries with necessary nutrients. In his article, Kristof reminds us that lack of vitamins and minerals and nutrients can have dire consequences and that it is cheaper and easier to prevent nutrition related birth defects than to treat them.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, the cost of fortifying food staples, such as sugar, salt, and flour with supplemental nutrients and vitamins can cost as little as 30 cents per person per year. One vitamin A capsule provides enough vitamin A for up to 6 months and costs around 2 cents. A three-month supply of iron pills is only 20 cents. This is a small price to pay for big returns.

Meredith Baker is a freshman at Harvard College and a member of the Crimson Editorial Board. She has done community development work in Nicaragua and Honduras, and has written for the Houston Chronicle and reported for the Houston CBS affiliate.