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By Kate Schecter 

News Americas, NEW YORK, NY, Tues. June 7, 2022: It is widely recognized that ultra-processed–“junk” –food is a significant contributor to the 40% of adults and at least 15% of children in the US who are obese. 

Obesity related illnesses including diabetes, hypertension and fatty liver disease are not just confined to the US and high-income countries.   Many low-income countries are now suffering from them too.  Hunger and lack of food has now been joined by yet another form of malnutrition rooted in eating too many of the wrong kinds of foods. 

Guatemala is a good example.   In 2013, over 100 organizations including governments, aid donors, civil society, the UN and businesses met in the first Nutrition for Growth Initiative Summit.   The Summit set out targets for key indicators tied to development, including anemia among women, breastfeeding, birth weight and more.   According to the Global Nutrition Report, Guatemala has shown no progress towards achieving the target for obesity.  Nearly 30% of adult women and 17.6% of adult men are living with obesity.  This puts the country right in with the regional average of 30.7% for women and 22.8% for men.  

What is especially alarming about this trend is that, since 2013, rates of obesity and attendant chronic illnesses have spread from Guatemala’s cities to rural areas like San Martin. 

What is different, of course, is that San Martin is not like a small American rural town surrounded by corn and soybean fields. San Martin produces an abundance of fruits and vegetables.  Most families grow them for their own consumption as well as to sell. 

Nevertheless, ultra-processed foods like chips, cookies and soda are relatively inexpensive, require no preparation and continue to pose a risk. Advertising throughout the country promotes these unhealthy foods.   Especially among Guatemala’s younger people, ultra-processed food is displacing fresh, healthy food–laying the groundwork for chronic health conditions for which the country’s health system is not prepared. 

This threatens to make poverty even more intractable.    

First, those with chronic health conditions have higher rates of absence from work.   For some, these illnesses are debilitating, preventing any kind of work.  The diminution or even removal of a source of income can make it difficult if not impossible for a family to afford school-related costs or invest in farms or small businesses. 

Second, it is likely Guatemala will need to divert spending from other programs to its health system.  Critically, this spending will not be used to improve health outcomes; but rather, simply manage chronic, preventable and expensive diet-related illnesses.   These are resources that could be otherwise invested in improving health, education and other pillars of economic development.  

But there are solutions. 

World Neighbors, an international NGO, and its local partners are working with family farmers in San Martin and other poor remote communities in Guatemala to return to traditional diets built on varied fruits, vegetables and grains.  Families are teaching others how to prepare traditional meals using traditional ingredients.  This not only improves health, it also helps reemphasize a culture of mutual support.  This community-minded approach carries over to other efforts such as savings and credit groups to build capital and invest in local business enterprises that improve life for whole communities.  

At the same time, World Neighbors is teaching sustainable farming techniques that raise produce quality, output and profits.   These techniques are especially important now, as prices of fertilizers and other inputs increase.  

Focusing on traditional foods grown in a sustainable manner is a virtuous circle in which good food and sound eating habits feed into higher incomes.  This, in turn, enables the purchase of better and more nutritious foods.  If health is wealth, farmers in San Martin are growing it in ways that could hold lessons for other communities faced with new—and often unhealthy—food choices. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Kate Schecter is President and CEO of World Neighbors

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