two children sitting in a rubbish dump, honduras
Young boys working long hours with little food, on the rubbish dump of Tegucigalpa, Honduras

What is Malnutrition?

The children who come into our care have had difficult early lives of extreme poverty and they have suffered a number of deprivations but one of the most damaging is the lack of food and  chronic hunger.

Across all our countries of operation and within all the communities we serve, the Sisters are witnessing the instances of food deprivation, hunger and malnutrition increasing, moving away from, rather than towards the UNSDG Goal 2 of Zero Hunger. Caused by climate change, the economic repercussions of the pandemic, and deepening income inequalities, the Sisters observe a growing crisis of hunger and malnutrition in the poorest families.

Malnutrition can be caused by eating a diet which is unbalanced – families might exist on foods made from grains like wheat flour but without additional fruit, veg, meat and dairy children experience vitamin deficiencies. It can be caused by expending excess energy from a very young age working long hours often in rural or slum occupations to support their families. Most often though it is caused by just not having enough to eat. When families simply cannot grow or afford the basic necessities like flour in order to make something as simple as a chapati in Tanzania, or a tortilla in Central America they will go for days without eating.

A boy being weighed on a scale with a nuns assistance

The impact of malnutrition

The developmental impact of malnutrition on children (the most vulnerable cohort) is serious and long-lasting.

Malnutrition means children are wasted (underweight for their age), stunted (low height for age), sometimes obese, often nutrient deficient but always prone to diet related communicable and non communicable disease – meaning they are susceptible to infectious diseases like TB, malaria & hepatitis and heart disease, stroke and some cancers.

Extreme hunger and malnutrition caused 149 million children under 5 to be stunted in 2022 and accounts for nearly half of deaths in that age group – mostly in low and middle income areas.

Without intervention, malnutrition ultimately means less productive individuals, who are more prone to disease and thus unable to earn more and improve their livelihoods. It impacts not just themselves, but their families, communities and countries.

A group of girls sitting at a table eating tortillas

How we address nutrition at the SoM Schools

At our Sisters of Mary schools, the children who come into our care suffer all the effects of malnutrition. They arrive weak, listless and tired, often unwell, unable to concentrate and suffer reduced appetite, lacking interest in food and drink. Addressing the food and nutritional needs of these vulnerable children is our first priority.

Hungry children cannot learn and so after attending to their urgent medical needs, providing three balanced, nutritious meals a day is fundamental for the child’s immediate wellbeing.

With more than 20,000 children currently in our care it is the job of the marketing Sister in each school (so called because she is the one who visits the food market and does all the shopping!) to ensure a balanced diet for the children.  She designs meals which are rich in a variety of fruit and vegetables, includes starchy foods like bread or rice,  beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other protein.

a group of boys with harvested corn

Providing the food needed for a balanced diet

Our generous supporters help us with our food budget to provide nearly 62600 nutritious meals a day for all the children in our care. However, food costs are increasing globally and so they are contained and the menu supplemented by the Sisters who grow more and more of their own food at the school

This includes a range of  fruit and vegetables. Many of the schools have become partially self sufficient with the produce from their land over the last year. Some schools grow their own coffee and almost all of them bake their own bread.

The children are involved in every stage, learning how to grow, cook and prepare their food, instilling cooking and healthy eating skills which will help them and their families and last them lifelong. It is a joyful and learning experience for every single child and a future career for many of them

Christina from Kisarawe Girlstown shows us how she has learnt to cook a traditional Chapati, an East African pancake-like flatbread

A group of girls in a classroom smiling with new bags on their laps

How balanced nutrition transforms a child

From day one in our care it is this regular balanced diet that has the most impact on the child’s development at school. For many of the children, learning that the food is available just for them is a hugely emotional experience.

It takes some time for them to accept the security of their new food provision and learn to rely on the arrival of regular meals. However the health benefits are immediate. The children grow fit and strong and their new balanced diet is the catalyst for the transformation of the child right before our eyes.

Thanks to our supporters, safe in the care of the Sisters, these most vulnerable and malnourished children finally receive the food they need to be healthy. They have the chance to reach their physical and educational potential ready to transform their lives and create a poverty free future for themselves and their families.