Nutritional diagnosis for better academic performance in Guatemalan schools

 

  • Thanks to funding from the Andalusian Agency for International Development Cooperation (AACID), the project “Improving the academic performance and quality of life of vulnerable children in Guatemala: comprehensive programme of cognitive and emotional stimulation, development of school gardens and strengthening of distance teaching in the face of the challenge of Covid-19”.
  • As part of this project, a report has been drawn up, which sets out the process carried out and the results obtained in the nutritional diagnostic assessment carried out in the eleven schools.
  • This report aims to assess the current nutritional status of the students and identify the nutritional needs that can be improved through the school gardens.

The pandemic (Covid-19) represents an extremely serious threat to the advancement of education in Guatemala, as it has such significant impacts as the closure of schools indefinitely and a recession of the global and national economy. Therefore, great efforts must be made to counteract its effects. School closures are leading to stagnation in learning, increased dropout rates, reduced school attachment and greater inequality. For its part, the country’s economic crisis is affecting the most vulnerable sectors, directly impacting on quality of life. The impacts on students forced to follow a distance education model are reflected in the worsening of their nutritional situation, the deterioration of their mental health (and, consequently, of their academic performance) and the deepening of their vulnerability.

Guatemala is the second most chronically malnourished country in Latin America, according to FAO, and the sixth most malnourished country in the world according to UNICEF. In rural areas with an indigenous population, this rate can reach 89%. Totonicapán has 70% chronic malnutrition and the figure reaches 56% in the department of Chiquimula, both areas within the country’s so-called dry corridor. These areas also concentrate the highest number of increases in acute malnutrition cases, according to the Secretariat for Food and Nutrition Security (2017).

Chronic malnutrition in children has a direct impact on brain development, especially in the first years of life, limiting children’s potential. School administrators report that many students, especially in rural indigenous areas, only eat tortillas and atol at home. In a previous project also developed in Guatemala, it was concluded that malnutrition has a negative impact on cognitive development, with a consequent low academic performance and a delay in learning that limits the possibilities of improving their condition in the future. Fe y Alegría Guatemala, together with the Ministry of Education, is currently implementing a programme called “Alimentación Escolar” (School Feeding), which aims to provide food to children at the pre-primary and primary levels. However, the programme mainly provides dry rations, which are insufficient to address this nutritional problem. In order to improve nutrient intake, it is necessary to diversify the diet with more vegetables; therefore, this project seeks to develop school gardens to improve the nutrient intake of students and their knowledge about healthy eating. These projects, implemented by Fundación ETEA, have yielded positive results.

Research to assess child nutritional status

At the beginning of the project, a consultancy was contracted to carry out the report “Diagnostic evaluation of the dietary diversity of children in eleven schools”, whose main objective was to provide objective and scientific information to determine the appropriate strategy for the implementation of eleven school gardens that would have an impact on the academic performance of students in eleven Fe y Alegría schools. To this end, a diagnosis was made of the nutritional status through the analysis of anthropometric variables: weight, height and average arm circumference of boys and girls from these eleven Fe y Alegría schools. On the other hand, the frequency and variability of food consumption of the students was evaluated in order to identify the nutritional needs that can be improved through the school gardens.

Therefore, this diagnosis included the assessment of dietary and nutritional status in a sample of 694 students. The sample represented 69% of the total population of 1004 students registered in fourth grade for the 2021 cycle, which represents a confidence level of 90%. To carry out the dietary assessment, a nutritional survey was carried out to record the food ingested by the students and their frequency of consumption. The assessment of nutritional status was carried out through anthropometric measurements, for which three basic measurements were taken: weight, height and mid-upper arm circumference (MUC). The results were compared with reference values of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Finally, a correlation was made between the recorded data to determine the nutrient intake that would need to be strengthened in the students.

Nutritional recommendations for better academic performance

The results obtained reflect a certain heterogeneity among the schools and departments involved in the project. In the schools surveyed in the department of Totonicapán, the highest percentages are concentrated around moderate stunting (27%-46%) and low height risk (30%-34%). In schools in the department of Chiquimula, the highest percentages are also concentrated in moderate stunting, reaching half of the surveyed students in one school. Finally, in the department of Guatemala there is a more positive percentage in terms of normal nutritional status (25%-48%), while the percentage of moderate stunting drops considerably.

With these results, the consultancy has pointed out certain recommendations based on the heterogeneity of schools and departments. Thus, for underweight students with somatic protein depletion it is recommended to consume eggs, to consume meat 2-4 times a week and to supplement with supplements. For overweight students it is recommended not to restrict food or diet. However, it suggests increasing physical activity and consuming more fruits and vegetables, among others. Finally, for students with stunted growth, it is recommended to improve the consumption of eggs, chicken or fish, sleep 8 to 10 hours a day and avoid coffee, among others.