How Hunger and Malnutrition During Pregnancy Contribute to Poverty

Hard work. Determination. Grit. The American Dream tells us that anyone — regardless of the circumstances they were born into — can rise from “rags to riches” to create their own version of success.

It’s that simple, right?

Not so fast. The Catholic Church recognizes there are social, economic and political factors that prevent poor children and families from reaching their God-given potential. But there’s one factor in particular that can biologically alter a child’s brain and body even before birth.

That factor is hunger — or more specifically, malnutrition.

According to the Global Hunger Index, 1 in 11 people worldwide are undernourished, meaning they don’t get enough calories in order to thrive. In developing countries like Guatemala, Haiti and Mozambique, many children and families suffer from serious, widespread hunger — a life-threatening condition expected to worsen in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Without interventions, today’s hunger will impact families for years to come, saddling children and their descendants with obstacles to attaining success.

Related: Addressing Chronic Childhood Malnourishment in Guatemala

Leika, 9 months old, has only known a life of extreme poverty in Ouanaminthe, Haiti, and is at risk of malnutrition.
Leika, pictured here at 9 months old, has only known a life of extreme poverty in Ouanaminthe, Haiti, and is at risk of malnutrition.

Why Nutrition Matters During the First 1,000 Days

Scientific research shows the first 1,000 days of life — from conception to a child’s second birthday — are the most critical for physical and mental development. Proper nutrition during this short window has a profound impact and can determine the course of the child’s life. The ability to grow, learn, work and succeed — and, by extension, society’s long-term prosperity — is rooted in good nutrition before birth and during infancy.

According to the National Institutes of Health, brain development begins just 18 days after conception. By the time a child turns 2, the brain has already undergone rapid changes. This includes trillions of crucial connections that affect learning, memory, processing, attention, multitasking and other functions.

Help Now: Join the fight against chronic childhood hunger

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you.”

Jeremiah 1:5

What Are Macronutrients and Why Are They Important?

A baby’s growing brain needs the right fuel, known as macronutrients — protein, fats and carbohydrates. Children who do not get enough macronutrients before their second birthday often suffer from lower IQ scores, poor academic performance and behavioral challenges.

Poor nutrition in the first 1,000 days has devastating lifelong effects. Without the right blend of macronutrients, it becomes more difficult to one day rise out of poverty. It causes irreversible damage to the brain, ultimately affecting a child’s ability to do well in school and eventually earn a good living.

Children who are undernourished during the critical thousand-day window are more likely to be short and thin in adulthood and less healthy and productive than they might have been otherwise. When malnourished girls grow up, they are more likely to have low-birthweight babies, perpetuating the cycle of malnutrition and poverty.

Without early interventions, the world’s most vulnerable babies in Guatemala, Haiti, Mozambique and other developing countries face tremendous hurdles to escape poverty — a tragedy Cross Catholic Outreach is working hard to overcome.

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The Cycle of Hunger in Developing Countries

Children and families pay a great price for malnutrition. They pay in poor health, reduced economic potential and lack of dignity.

Farming is often one of the few moneymaking options for families in rural villages. This is a particularly challenging venture in places like Guatemala, Haiti and Mozambique, all of which suffer from periodic flooding and droughts. Poor farmers often must sell what little food they’ve stored up to settle debts — then watch as their families slowly starve. Hunger saps their energy, preventing family members from fully participating in meaningful activities that could improve their quality of life.

Proper nutrition is often the first step toward empowering poor families to become self-sufficient. Without adequate nutrition, fathers, mothers and children are sapped of physical strength, finances and hope for the future. At Cross Catholic Outreach, we are taking steps to address the hunger crisis — but we need your help.

Related: Church Leaders Rally to Address Food Crises in World’s Poorest Nations

Vitafood is a blessing for children and families in the Diocese of Santa Rosa de Lima, Guatemala.
Vitafood is a blessing for children and families in the Diocese of Santa Rosa de Lima, Guatemala.

Fighting Hunger With Vitafood

One of our key strategies is the distribution of Vitafood, specially formulated meal packs designed to meet the needs of malnourished children. Vitafood is also ideal for pregnant mothers, the elderly and other vulnerable populations.

Though we receive Vitafood from different sources, each source develops the Vitafood with a blend of macronutrients. It includes a carbohydrate-rich rice or lentil base, a high-quality protein (usually soy or beans) and key vitamins. Vitafood can be supplemented with locally grown produce and should be prepared with a fat source for optimal nutrition.

Vitafood is packed into 40-foot containers, placed on cargo ships and sent to international ports. Once the shipment arrives at its destination, our staff relies on a global network of trusted partners to get these products into the hands of priests, nuns, Catholic schools and orphanages that pass them on to needy families in impoverished communities.

Food Packing Events: Join the movement to feed the hungry through the love of Christ

Elvira Pelaez tends to the fresh produce she’s growing in her backyard in Guatemala’s Diocese of Suchitepéquez-Retalhuleu.
Elvira Pelaez tends to the fresh produce she’s growing in her backyard in Guatemala’s Diocese of Suchitepéquez-Retalhuleu.

Relieving Hunger With Home Gardens in Guatemala

In Guatemala, many families lack even the most basic needs — especially food. For years, the rural Diocese of Suchitepéquez-Retalhuleu has faced seasonal droughts — prompting Cross Catholic Outreach to launch a major new effort to protect against hunger. Tragically, Guatemalan families suffer from malnutrition while the crops they raise are exported to the United States and other countries.

Cross Catholic Outreach is partnering with the diocese for a large-scale community transformation initiative to address the hunger crisis. This plan includes providing home garden supplies, seeds and training to empower families to grow their own fruits, vegetables and herbs. Over time, families can even use these home gardens as a new income source to help break the cycle of poverty.

Related: Hunger in Guatemala — Causes, Effects & Solutions

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In Ouanaminthe, Haiti, Vitafood does more than fill stomachs — it demonstrates God’s love.
In Ouanaminthe, Haiti, Vitafood does more than fill stomachs — it demonstrates God’s love.

How Vitafood Blesses Babies and Mothers in Haiti

Haiti is in urgent need of prayer — and food.

This Caribbean nation ranks 104th out of 107 countries rated by the Global Hunger Index. Nearly half of Haitians are undernourished, and 1 in 5 children under age 5 suffer from wasting. Its GDP per capita is just $766 — less than one-tenth of the average for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Founded and operated by the Apostolic Sisters of Mary Immaculate, the Marie Louise Bayle Center supports extremely vulnerable families in Ouanaminthe, Haiti. Vitafood plays a crucial role in this mission. It fortifies the diets of malnourished children, supports physical and cognitive development, and helps them do their very best in school. It is even possible to grind the Vitafood and use it with baby formula to help little ones meet their milestones.

Related: Hunger in Haiti and Its Devastating Effects

In addition to supporting orphans, Association Cross Mozambique trains mothers and grandmothers in horticulture.
In addition to supporting orphans, Association Cross Mozambique trains mothers and grandmothers in horticulture.

Fighting Hunger in Mozambique for Vulnerable Children

Mozambique, in Southeastern Africa, ranks 103rd out of 107 countries with available data on the Global Hunger Index. It also has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world at just 56 years. This is largely due to the HIV/AIDS crisis, which has left a devastating number of children orphaned and living on the streets.

Fortunately, our Church shines a beacon of hope and service in this area of desperate need. One of these dedicated Catholic programs is Association Cross Mozambique, which offers food, education and health care to Mozambique’s orphans and vulnerable children. Monthly food rations are available to all the children the program serves, and nutritious daily meals are provided free of charge to the most vulnerable children.

The first Corporal Work of Mercy calls us to feed the hungry. Yet millions of people are still ravaged by hunger, malnutrition and the consequences of food insecurity. Hunger threatens not only people’s lives, dignity and future. It also affects brain development, especially during the first 1,000 days of life.

As the Pontifical Council Cor Unum has stated, “The call to love, which God sends out through the presence of our fellow humans who are suffering from hunger, must become a reality for each of us.” Together, we can show the watching world that God’s love can overcome the reality of hunger — breaking the cycle of poverty once and for all.                       

Join Cross Catholic Outreach to fight hunger and empower families to escape poverty.

Proceeds from this campaign will be used to cover any expenditures incurred through June 30, 2021, the close of our ministry’s new fiscal year. In the event that more funds are raised than needed to fully fund the project, the excess funds, if any, will be used to meet the most urgent needs of the ministry.