Hippocrates may have been two thousand years ahead of his time when he noted “our food should be our medicine and our medicine should be our food”, but, as any nutritionist will tell you – encouraging people to eat healthily is still an uphill struggle.
Yet, this is exactly what Max Griffiths and Lizzie Greenwood, current nutrition volunteers at VFV, are attempting to achieve. Having just embarked upon a ten-month placement based in the small village of San Juan, they are implementing a major project aiming to tackle malnourishment in local children. Not only are they providing daily free meals, but also offering education on healthy eating and practical solutions for local families which – crucially – are sustainable in the long term.
It’s a daunting task, but then, part of the VFV mission statement is that if it’s worth having, it’s worth trying for. For Max and Lizzie, this is more than a volunteer project, but actually constitutes part of their professional development. As third-year nutrition students at Leeds Metropolitan University, they are undertaking this project as part of their degree, and have specialist expertise in how to achieve what they want to.
The core of the project involves offering a free meal to thirty-five local children each day. Villages like San Juan have a huge percentage of malnourished children under the age of seven, and they are prioritized on the program according to the severity of their condition. The intention with this additional meal is to bring each child up to a healthy target weight within three months.
Achieving this involves a lot of planning – both nutritionally and financially. “We always try to specifically buy foods which will make up for the nutrients the children lack” explains Lizzie. “We know that the biggest deficiencies in the Philippines are Vitamin A and Iron, so we focus on these a lot. We prepare a recipe including liver at least once a week for this reason”.
Achieving this on a budget of 500 pesos ($12 US) to feed 35 children, of course, isn’t easy. But more crucially – the recipes are only significant if they educate the community on why these specific foods are important, and how even the most low-income households can re-create them.
“The crucial part of this project is that it has to offer sustainable solutions, and a huge part of that comes down to education. We always encourage the local mothers to help us with the food preparation and cooking, so they can see exactly how we’re making the recipes, and so they understand why we use certain ingredients that we do. We’re constantly offering talks on healthy nutrition, and working on a series of posters explaining different food groups and how to achieve a balanced diet. However, there’s no point, of course, if they don’t have access to the foods without us, so we’re also working on a locally-tended fruit and vegetable patch as well as a fish pond for the community. The idea is that these will be tended by locals, who can then help themselves to the produce, free of charge”.
Max and Lizzie are currently organizing a series of activities to tackle some of the most prevalent health problems in the community. “We’re currently planning a workshop on making home-made, healthy candies from local, affordable ingredients which families can make at home”. The particular snack they are focusing on – polvoron – includes, amongst other things, the miracle ‘superfood’, Malunggay.
“This leaf is truly incredible” notes Lizzie of the locally grown product. “It has seven times the Vitamin C of an orange, four times the vitamin A of a carrot, four times calcium of milk, three times the potassium of Banana, twice the protein of yoghurt – and its grown free in many of the family gardens!” Educating people on how to include ingredients like these in local recipes – especially in the food they give their children is the best solution to many of the nutrition problems in San Juan.
When I meet them, they’re working on a chicken curry – epitomising a perfect recipe for this project; “The coconuts are free, as we have a farm nearby. The milk also has a lot of fat in it, and any extra calories for the kids are good. Lastly, we serve this with Manna Pack rice, which we get free supplements from the government – it’s fortified with extra protein, minerals, and nutrients – so it’s a really efficient way to start fulfilling the kids’ nutrition requirements”.
Implementing a project like this in a developing country is fraught with difficulties, and volunteers really have to persist to make it a success. VFV funding currently only can afford for thirty-five children to be on the program, meaning there is a waiting list for local children to join. Despite this, attendance can be an issue, as all the children are under seven years old, and many of them have parents who work away all day, they need encouragement to make the independent decision to attend the free feedings every morning. “We always bring along toys with us when we serve food, as an extra little incentive for the kids to attend if their parents can’t bring them”.
As the San Juan project continues on until June, it’s much longer than most VFV placements. The advantage is that this extent of time really allows volunteers to build lasting relationships with the community which they live and work in, and – hopefully – make a lasting impact.
Kamila Kocialkowska, latest Media Intern for Volunteer for the Visayans writes about the experiences of fellow volunteers working in various VFV projects. In this article, Kamila talks about Elizabeth Greenwood and Max Griffiths, who are both from the United Kingdom. Both are currently working at San Juan Nutrition Program where they put to use their knowledge on nutrition to educate the community in regards to healthy eating and sustainable development.