My Favorite Food

How One Community Prevents Malnutrition by Monitoring the Growth of its Children.

Post by Douglas Steinberg, HKI’s Deputy Regional Director for West Africa.

In a recent visit to HKI’s work in Tsogal, Niger, replies to my queries about the harvest were not encouraging at all.

“Most families here have only harvested enough to feed their families for two months,” replied one farmer in the community. This year is shaping up to be much less bountiful than last year – but still better than the disastrous harvest of 2009. This is a time when young children are at risk of malnutrition.

This village in the Mirriah district (Zinder region) is a typical dusty village in southern central Niger. The community lives off subsistence farming, cultivating millet and sorghum during the short summer rainy season. During the long dry season, people do what they can to get by. There isn’t much to do in Tsogal during the dry season, and there isn’t much to eat.

HKI works here to teach village health committees how to monitor the growth of children under two years of age. It is an important strategy for catching children who may be slipping into acute malnutrition. Once a month, mothers bring their children aged 6 to 23 months to the village center, and a group of community health workers measures the children’s mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC). Children with a MUAC reading of less than 125 mm are at risk of moderate acute malnutrition and they are given a fortified ration to help them fill out. Children with MUAC readings below 115mm are considered to have severe acute malnutrition, and they are referred to a health center in a nearby town for treatment with Plumpy’Nut, a product that is high in calories, protein and micronutrients. The success of this local monitoring is that few children become severely malnourished. They are screened early enough to get appropriate care in their own communities.

community health volunteers

This team of community health volunteers in the village of Tsogal have been trained by Helen Keller International to monitor the growth of children under the age of two in their area to check for signs of malnutrition.

Growth Monitoring Register

This register is used by community health volunteers to monitor the growth of children. Normal kids are highlighted in green, those with moderate acute malnutrition (MUAC readings 115-125 mm) in yellow, and those with severe acute malnutrition in red. You can see the success of the program, as most of the yellows go to green over time, and even the red got better.

Mothers who bring their kids for screening also participate in discussions on nutrition topics, such as exclusive breastfeeding of children under six months, optimal feeding of children 6 to 23 months, and hygiene.

Optimal feeding means a diverse diet rich in protein and micronutrients, including poultry, eggs, leafy vegetables and orange fleshed fruits. This is not always available in a place like Tsogal.

When I asked a boy about his favorite food, he looked at me curiously. The notion of a “favorite” food was too strange! When prodded we learned that his favorite food is eggs – but these are hard to come by. It had been over a month since he had last eaten meat – at the Eid holiday at the end of Ramadan. I asked if he liked bananas, and this 11 year old informed me that he had never eaten a banana! But before giving up all hope, we discovered that — when in season (which happened to be now) — he delighted in sautéed grasshoppers.

While not one of my favorite dishes, I noted that grasshoppers are rich in fats and protein – just what a growing boy needs.

Banana Boy

The boy on the left (in the yellow tank top) has never eaten a banana, but delights in sauteed grasshoppers, which happen to be rich in fats and protein.

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Categories: Africa, Reducing Malnutrition

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