Nutrition Education in Guatemala – The First 1,000 Days Program

Photo of a Guatemalan mother and her infant, part of the nutritional education element of the Seeds for a Future Program.

The First 1,000 Days: Community Development via Early Childhood Nutrition.

The first 1,000 days of life is a critical period for child development.

From the moment of conception up to age two, caretaker decisions have an immediate impact on a child’s physical health and future cognitive abilities.

At Seeds for a Future, we work with rural families and particularly young parents to optimize family nutrition during this time. We strongly believe that lasting community development cannot take place without adequate early childhood nutrition.

Never heard of the first 1,000 days?

The term was popularized by Roger Thurow’s book The First 1,000 Days (2016) which summarizes a growing body of research on the critical importance of nutrition and nurturing care during this period. A senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Thurow demonstrates the far-reaching implications for an individual’s health and opportunity later in life. He further underscores the ways in which food insecurity and malnutrition during this critical period perpetuate the cycle of poverty in developing countries. 

It's widely accepted that the first 1,000 days are a critical period for child development.

Adequate intake of nutrients such as protein, iron, zinc, and folate ensures optimum brain development, growth, and immunity. Exposure to germs and infections during this time also serves to strengthen the immune system. Nutrition in early life sets the tone for future physical and mental health.

Undernutrition or nutrient deficiency during the first 1,000 days can lead to a host of physical and mental challenges later in life.

Children may experience stunting and/or impaired brain development, with long-term consequences like lower IQ and school performance, reduced earnings as adults, and a higher risk of disease. Exposure to stress during the first 1,000 days can also alter brain and body development, increasing the risk of chronic diseases later in life.

Adequate nutrition, healthcare, and responsive caregiving during the first 1,000 days have a determining power over individuals and communities.

These findings are particularly relevant in countries like Guatemala, where one in two children suffers from chronic malnutrition. Rates of stunting have been reported as high as 90% in some indigenous communities. Many rural families subsist on a diet of primarily beans and tortillas, with the occasional addition of seasonal, locally available fruits and vegetables. Animal-based protein is prohibitively expensive for many.

In rural Guatemala, chronic malnutrition often manifests as chronic micronutrient deficiency. Iron deficiency and anemia are particularly common. Both conditions disproportionately affect young mothers, as ​​pregnancy and lactation increase the body's demand for iron. Nutrient-deficient mothers may pass deficiencies on to their newborn children. Due to food insecurity and a lack of dietary diversity, young children retain these deficiencies for extended periods of time. 

At Seeds for a Future, we understand the critical importance of the first 1,000 days.

We work directly with families to increase access to a dependable and highly nutritious diet during this time. Our process begins with a diagnostic of a family’s unique nutritional needs, followed by a comprehensive garden design by our agronomy specialists and community nutrition educators. 

During design, our Field Team is attentive to the nutritional vulnerabilities of mothers and young children, particularly children under the age of two.

For a family with two pregnant women, our team of Extensionistas might prioritize iron-rich leafy greens like chard, spinach, mushrooms, and beets. They would likely provide the family with ‘starter animals’ like a pair of breeding rabbits or laying hens. With the hands-on support of their designated Extensionista and ongoing education in best practices for small animal husbandry, families can ensure access to iron-rich animal protein for years to come.

In 2018, the Institute for Nutrition of Central America and Panama (INCAP) completed an independent study of our integrated approach to family nutrition.

The study followed 259 families for 30 months, as they participated in our signature Casa Granja or ‘backyard farm’ program. Participating families were selected to include at least one pregnant woman and/or mother with an infant less than 12 months of age. The INCAP study found that maternal and infant anemia was drastically reduced through participation in our Casa Granja program. Effects were lasting, with reports showing stable levels of iron in mothers and children 20 months after the study’s conclusion. 

In Guatemala, rural communities may struggle to access nutrient-dense, culturally-appropriate foods for a plethora of historical, economic, and social reasons.

Lack of access to nutritious foods early in life can have a severe impact on child development and the overall health of the community. It is absolutely essential that health educators and nutrition interventions take these factors into account, and seek to provide holistic nutrition education to young parents and extended family members.