“There is probably no more fundamental way to eliminate poverty than to raise the development potential of children. Nutrition is one of the keys to their proper physical and cognitive development.
Tadeo Chino and Namanga Ngongi, Foreword to What Works? A review of the Efficacy and Effectiveness of Nutrition Interventions (Manila, Philippines: Asian Development Bank, 2001), page iii
Brad Walker is a public health physician in Las Vegas, Nevada. He is also a cofounder of the Liahona Children’s Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to solve the problem of malnutrition and illiteracy in the LDS community in parts of Ecuador and Guatemala. I spoke with him recently about the problem of nutrition, about the foundation, and about how fifty dollars a year can feed a child.
What is the Liahona Children’s Foundation, and how did it get started?
The Liahona Children’s Foundation was formed to help malnourished kids using food supplements, particularly LDS kids in Ecuador and Guatemala. The program was started in 2008. We called up eight stake presidents and invited them to participate in the program. They all accepted. A group of BYU and UVU students went down in 2008/2009 under the direction of the founders, a group of about seven of us, to assess the height and weight of kids. If they were malnourished, they were invited to participate in a nutrition program, receiving nutritional supplements for free.
What was the process of screening the kids?
The stake presidents arranged for parents to bring their children to stake centers if they wanted to participate. Families were also told they could invite a non-LDS family to come and be part of the program. More kids than we expected showed up. We screened around four-thousand kids in a couple of weeks.
Are parents concerned their children are malnourished?
Yes. You can see parents are worried their kids are malnourished, some living on about fifty cents a day. For some of the kids having meat is a pretty rare thing, and some of the kids will never see meat. The parents know their kids’ diet isn’t what they want it to be. There’s a lot of marketing in these countries for nutritional supplements for kids, and the kids have the types of health issues you find in malnourished children. So the parents know when their kids aren’t doing well. Usually there were a few hundred kids lined up and waiting at the stake centers when the students arrived to assess them. In the worst case, there were 700-800 kids waiting to have their height and weight checked.
Out of the assessed children, how many were found to be malnourished and qualified for the Liahona Children’s Foundation program?
More than we planned on. About 25% of the 4000 kids 4000 or so children screened were chronically malnourished (>95% LDS). Worldwide, there are 50 million death annually, and 5 million (10%) of those death are due to childhood malnutrition. And while only 10% of malnourished child die; the remaining 90% suffer lifelong cognitive and physical defects that significantly and severely reduce their earning potential as adults, leading to a cycle in which their reduced future earnings lead to their own children being malnourished as well. We estimate 80,000 active LDS children suffer from chronic malnutrition, and about 900 die from malnutrition every year. A similar number of active LDS children are unable to attend elementary school secondary to lack of funding.
After children are invited into the program, what supplements are they given and for how long?
In each of the stakes we’ve hired a coordinator for eighty dollars a month to weigh and measure the children every six months, obtain supplements from local suppliers, and deliver the food supplements to the children. In Guatemala the children are given Incaparina, produced by and purchased from the government. In Ecuador it’s been more difficult to obtain the government-manufactured nutritional supplement and they eat either a soybean-based formulated cookie once a day or drink a beverage.
Note: Brad and I were both emotional at this point. We discussed the reality that someone has to decide who gets the supplements and who doesn’t. When a child is doing better, the supplements will be stopped, at least temporarily, to give another child a chance. Studies from around the globe show that when families are struggling, food and other resources are withheld from girls. Therefore girls and women are most likely to be malnourished, which effects generations because if affects reproduction and prenatal development. Sara Walker, a graduate student at George Washington University in Public Health and a volunteer for Liahona Children’s Foundation, is currently analyzing data sent back from stakes in Guatemala and Ecuador to see how gender disparities in feeding practices in the Mormon population compare with other populations.
Right now we have around 1,000 children in the program. Our local workers have to decide who starves and who receives help. Sometimes a child will be on the program for six months, and then get kicked off and another child added. It’s kind of a rotating system. The local bishop’s warehouses do something similar, but on a faster rotation. They may have a family receiving help with meat, milk, beans and oil for three months, and then kick them off and add another family, although they’re helping only a very small percentage of those affected at any given time, given their funding limitations.
We have groups of students out of the universities that would like to go down and screen more stakes. The problem is we don’t have the money to support the stakes after they are screened. We don’t want to go down and weigh and measure the children and then say, “You’re malnourished. Oh well.”
You’ve tried several different ways of advertising, but have not been as successful as you had hoped in fundraising. What is your hope for the program?
I would like to see stakes in the United States team-up with stakes Guatemala and Ecuador to feed more kids. There are hundreds of stakes that need help. We can only help seven. In the last year we’ve had a few stake presidents that want to get on the program, but we just don’t have any more cash. We aren’t even in the worst areas of these countries. Out further in the most indigenous areas in Guatemala there are near famine conditions.
The first year we raised about $13,000 outside of our own board members. Last year it was down some because of the economic downturn. Stakes in Guatemala and Ecuador do some fundraising locally, and do ok at it. But we really need to be more successful in fundraising if we would like to expand.
How much would it cost for a stake in the United States to cover a stake Central America?
About $6000 a year; this is equivalent to 10 individuals in a US stake donating $50/month to feed 100 or so malnourished children in a stake in Guatemala. In some stakes it’s a bit less, in some stakes more. It depends on the needs of the stakes. It costs about $50 a year to provide a child with supplements. For $150 we can feed them and send them to school. That’s another problem we want to work on, sending the kids to school.
Is there any overhead? Where does the money go?
We don’t have any overhead. We have about ten volunteers. It takes about two-hundred dollars to wire the money to bank in Guatemala or Ecuador every year, and we pay a local stake coordinator. They enjoy the work and spend the time to do the job. That money also covers a Christmas party for the children, and we regularly treat them for intestinal worms. And it’s not necessary to use our foundation; any existing foundation could sponsor their own stakes using their own foundation with a little technical assistance to get started.
Besides setting aside $50 a year, what can people do to help?
Right now we have a couple meetings a year, one in Utah and one in Southern California. People are always welcome to come and participate. We also need help with our website. We need help with social media and social networking. We always need donations. Right now we have about $36,000 a year raised by a few donors here, the stakes there, and donated by the volunteers. We would like $50000 or more. It would be nice if stakes got involved, or people did it for the long term; if they could just see they were feeding kids, and wanted to keep feeding kids. At our most recent board meeting, we discussed that while we had succeeded in creating awareness of the problem of childhood malnutrition and illiteracy in the LDS population, we had not succeeded in fundraising like we’d thought possible, and aren’t sure what else could be done to spark interest in the issue. We’ve presented at multiple symposium/Church-related gatherings, contacted lists of former missionaries off websites, advertised in newspapers, and even tried to do ward presentations, all without significant success. We don’t want to “give up”, but on the other hand aren’t sure that it’s possible to really get large numbers of people involved in assisting the malnourished and/or illiterate LDS child. Still, even a small group of Church members could experience the joy of meeting, screening, and taking on the malnourished/illiterate LDS kids in an LDS stake at a very reasonable monthly cost to them, even if the much larger problem in around 500 or so stakes remained unresolved.
People want to know why the Church doesn’t do this, why aren’t tithing and fast offerings taking care of it. The Church can’t take care of everything. Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin said, “At this very hour on this very day, some members even in our Church are praying for the miracle that would allow them to surmount the suffering that surrounds them. If, while we have the means to do so, we do not have compassion for them and spring to their aid, we are in danger of being among those the prophet Moroni spoke of when he said, ‘Behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel…more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted.”* And President Hinckley has said, “I think there is a tendency among us to say, ‘Oh, the Church will take care of that. I pay my fast offering. Let the Church take care of that.’ We need as individuals…to reach down and extend a helping hand without notice…to give of that which the Lord has so generously blessed us.” **
*The Law of the Fast. Ensign (May 2001):74. **BYU Universe May 2006