By Leonard Favela
In villages across Sri Lanka, many mothers struggle with the harsh reality that they are unable to provide healthy food for their children to eat. Many are either too poor to put food on the table consistently, or they don’t know what healthy food is and how nutrition impacts the bodies and minds of their growing children. Children who grow up malnourished are more likely to struggle with illnesses and developmental delays, leading to more medical issues as they get older. According to UNICEF, nearly one of every five children in Sri Lanka is born with low birth weight and approximately 29 percent of children under five years old are considered underweight. To address this epidemic, Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI) launched the Food Security Program (FSP).
CERI’s Food Security Program (FSP) teaches mothers in impoverished Sri Lankan villages how to cook healthy meals using affordable, nutritious ingredients they can acquire locally. Since 2013, CERI’s FSP has helped more than 400 children in villages which were identified by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health as struggling with malnourishment. CERI partners with churches, healthcare professionals, community leaders and volunteers to educate families about the importance of proper nutrition for their children.
First, CERI staff assemble a group of “Leader Mothers” in each village to participate in a training that explains the program to the local community. The training is co-facilitated by local midwives, nurses and other community leaders. Leader Mothers learn how to administer each child’s initial assessment, where heights and weights of the children help determine the needs for the Food Security Program in the village. The assessment data is used to identify which children are underweight and then their mothers are invited to a local kitchen where the FSP nutrition curriculum is taught over 12 days.
The program teaches mothers the types of foods that ensure the healthy development of their children and prevent chronic health issues. The curriculum, titled Intentional Cooking, offers a new nutritious meal recipe each day prepared with locally grown ingredients. Mothers are taught the critical importance of nutrition in their child’s development, as well as the importance of hygiene and hand washing.
Cooking trainings are hands-on and mothers are encouraged to bring their children to class in order to prepare and eat the food together. At the end of each day, CERI gives each mother a week’s supply of food, including ingredients from that day’s cooking lesson. The dishes are healthy, easy to cook, and reflective of Sri Lankan culture. Fruit salad, vegetable rotti, dosai and upma are traditional Sri Lanka favorites on the menu.
One mother of a 4-year-old girl learned the meaning of “brain food” while in the program, and how certain foods support healthy brain growth.
“The brain needs its own kind of fuel,” she explains. “It requires healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, protein and adequate vitamins and minerals. Before, I was worried that my daughter was so inactive and her memory was so short, but when I started feeding her differently, she became more active. I can see her development every day. I can see that she became a better child by eating better food.”
Measuring Success & Health
Families in the FSP learn how to use a weight-tracking log to measure the program’s short-term and long-term impact on the children. Children are weighed on day 1, day 12, and 30 and 90 days after their mothers complete the program.
An early increase in the child’s weight indicates that the lack of a healthy diet was the main reason for the child’s low weight. When the child gains weight over time, it usually indicates that mom is using the skills and knowledge she learned during the Intentional Cooking classes.
Mothers whose children demonstrate healthy weight gain are asked to be a “Leader Mother,” and encouraged to share their experience, skills and knowledge with other mothers in their village.
The FSP goes way beyond just group cooking classes. The program is a multifaceted, family-centric learning experience that educates women on how to build a healthy family, teaching family planning, breastfeeding, and effective parenting techniques. The program also includes a spiritual component where children are taught lessons from the Bible.
CERI Executive Director, Connie Belciug, says the FSP has extended helping hands to mothers who have endured dreadful hardships while trying to provide for their families.
“As a mother, it’s gut-wrenching and painful to see your child suffer and feel powerless to stop it,” says Belciug. “That is how so many families feel in the areas CERI serves. Programs like FSP make a lasting impact on families, and entire communities, by empowering women through education.”
Outcomes & Impact:
Last year, the FSP helped 123 children in nine villages in Manmunai North and Manmunai West.
In 2016, CERI is focusing FSP efforts on six villages in a war-torn area of Sri Lanka’s Kiran Division, expecting to serve 125 children.
Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI) is a Christian health and human services organization that brings hope to children living in extreme poverty around the globe. Our one-of-a-kind approach features professionally delivered social services, humanitarian aid campaigns, one-on-one child sponsorships and missions that address the material and spiritual needs of humanity. Our goal for each child is a lifestyle of resiliency, determination, hope for the future and faith in God.
CERI is the international division of BCFS, a global system of non-profit organizations with expertise in health and human services.