Lesson Plans

Malnutrition in Guatemala

A tale of two Guatemalas: On the left, mostly Mayan families living in the highlands receive staples like rice and beans provided by organizations like USAID. On the left, diners sample dishes at the high end Café Saúl in Guatemala City. Image by Hari Sreenivasan. Guatemala, 2014.

In the western highlands of Guatemala, more than 70 percent of children in some communities are so malnourished that their physical and mental growth is “stunted.” At 21 months, Lidia Chumil is nearly 4 pounds lighter and 3 inches shorter than the recommended average for children her age. Image by Hari Sreenivasan/PBS NewsHour. Guatemala, 2014.

Without intervention 50 to 70 percent of Guatemalan children will continue to grow up malnourished, costing their families and society in the long run. Image by Hari Sreenivasan. Guatemala, 2014.

At 6 feet 3 inches, the author towers over the Chumil family of Sacbichol, in the western highlands of Guatemala. Childhood malnutrition can lead to physical stunting. Image by Hari Sreenivasan. Guatemala, 2014.

The PBS NewsHour traveled to the western highlands of Guatemala with journalist Roger Thurow, who has been conducting research on malnutrition in Uganda, India, Guatemala and the United States for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. At 6’3’’, Thurow towers over the Chumil family. It was long-assumed Mayans were simply shorter than other ethnic groups, but researchers now believe malnutrition plays a major role. Image by Hari Sreenivasan/PBS NewsHour Guatemala, 2014..

Hari Sreenivasan of the PBS NewsHour takes a close look at Lidia’s growth chart with Roger Thurow of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Ana Alonzo of Save the Children. Lidia’s weight took a noticeable dive during the months when she was suffering from chronic diarrhea. Poor sanitation and contaminated water often thwart efforts to keep children well-nourished in their first years of life, leading to a renewed emphasis on good hygiene and safe water in many Guatemalan communities. Image by Jason Kane/PBS NewsHour. Guatemala, 2014.

Long-term studies show that well-nourished ethnic Mayans in other parts of the world – just across the border in southern Mexico, for example – often grow much taller than their peers. On average, Mayan children living in the U.S. are 4.5 inches taller than those in Guatemala, according to a major study published in the “American Journal of Human Biology.” Image by Hari Sreenivasan/PBS NewsHour. Guatemala, 2014.

Research suggests that proper nutrition is especially important during the “1,000 Day Window” – a critical period for physical growth and brain development that begins in pregnancy and lasts through a child’s second birthday. If the proper nutrients are missing during these months, growth slows. Too often, even if a child is well-fed later in life, they may never make up for the losses. Image by Hari Sreenivasan/PBS NewsHour. Guatemala, 2014.

The emphasis on good nutrition during the first “1,000 Days” has been growing worldwide. Humanitarian groups like Save the Children – in coordination with local and national governments – have increased efforts to weigh and measure babies in their first months of life, and, if necessary, provide appropriate interventions. Here, 7-month-old Cristian Oliver Chumil is right on track for weight but a few centimeters shorter than he should be. His parents are advised to feed him at least three times per day, including plenty of animal protein and fresh vegetables, when possible. Image by Hari Sreenivasan/PBS NewsHour. Guatemala, 2014.

The nonprofit Save the Children provides some families -- including Cristian’s -- with one pregnant goat and 10 laying chickens. The goat milk and eggs will go a long way toward supplementing the traditional staples of this area – rice, beans and local herbs, none of which provide enough of the vital nutrients young children need for proper development. Image by Hari Sreenivasan/PBS NewsHour. Guatemala, 2014.

After their children are weighed and measured at the Save the Children center, families make their way to a distribution center where their fingerprints are taken and they are handed rations of rice, beans and oil from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Image by Hari Sreenivasan/PBS NewsHour. Guatemala, 2014.

Guatemala is not a produce-poor nation. In many areas, the countryside is carpeted with fields of peas, carrots, lettuce, Brussels sprouts and broccoli. But very little of the crop makes its way into the homes of low-income Guatemalans. by Hari Sreenivasan/PBS NewsHour. Guatemala, 2014.

PBS NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan and Roger Thurow of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, discuss why so many Guatemalan children are malnourished when the countryside surrounding them is overflowing with vegetables. Thurow explains that much of the produce is bound for the profitable export market, including the U.S. Image by Jason Kane/PBS NewsHour. Guatemala, 2014.

Maria Pilar carries 5-month-old Blanca on her back as she weeds fields of peas and carrots. “I’ve been told that people eat these, but I don’t,” she told Hari Sreenivasan of the PBS NewsHour. Pilar added that she and her family prefer corn and beans. Image by Hari Sreenivasan/PBS NewsHour. Guatemala, 2014.

Public health officials say that convincing mothers like Maria Pilar to eat more of the vegetables they harvest – rather than sticking exclusively to cultural staples of rice and beans – will be one of the trickiest elements of bringing down Guatemala’s startling malnutrition rates. Image by Hari Sreenivasan/PBS NewsHour. Guatemala, 2014.

In Guatemala City, the administration of President Otto Perez Molina has been rolling out its “Zero Hunger” campaign, which aims to reduce chronic malnutrition among children by 10 percent by 2016. Luis Enrique Monterroso, the minister of food security and nutrition, told PBS NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan that one of the fastest ways of meeting that goal will be concentrating on proven methods within the “1,000 Day Window.” Image by Michael Werner/PBS NewsHour. Guatemala, 2014.

Chronic malnutrition reduces Guatemala’s GDP by as much as 11.4 percent every year. That’s why some of the nation’s top business leaders, including Juan Carlos Paiz, Herbert Gonzalez, and Alvaro Castillo (left to right) -- the chiefs of Guatemala’s baking, sugarcane and beverage industries, respectively -- meet regularly to discuss ways of reducing those numbers. Their No. 1 idea: Apply economic and political pressure on the latest round of presidential candidates, so that even when administrations change, the recent government commitment to tackle this problem will continue. Image by Michael Werner/PBS NewsHour. Guatemala, 2014.

Until recently, many professionals in Guatemala City had no idea that malnutrition rates in the countryside were so abysmal. Then a social movement, led by Alejandro Biguria (above) and some friends and colleagues in the private sector and civic society, began to stir the nation’s conscience. They launched the “I Have Something to Give Campaign,” which coincided with the Guatemalan government’s Zero Hunger Pact. Image by Michael Werner/PBS NewsHour. Guatemala, 2014.

Even with the new dialogue coming from the capital, many low-income families say they haven’t seen much change. Government efforts to distribute fresh foods and nutritional counseling programs remain sporadic. Despite being more aware of the kinds of foods they should be feeding their children, many families still lack access to anything but their usual provisions of rice, beans and local herbs. Image by Hari Sreenivasan/PBS NewsHour. Guatemala, 2014.


By the end of this lesson, you will be able to integrate information presented in different media or formats in order to develop a coherent understanding of malnutrition in Guatemala.

Introducing the Lesson:

Today's lesson will explore the challenges surrounding malnutrition in Guatemala. As part of the lesson, you will examine resources from Pulitzer Center grantees Roger Thurow and Hari Sreenivasan's project "Guatemala: Hungry for Change." The project explores the growing numbers of malnurished, "stunted" children in Guatemala who are experiencing slow growth, poor school performance and, later in life, lower economic productivity.


Write down what you ate for lunch today. Divide what you ate into the different nutritious food groups (i.e.carbs, fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy, fats).

  • How many food groups did your meal cover?
  • Do you think you had a healthy meal? Why or why not?

Introducing the Resources:

After examining each resource and answer the questions attached. After reviewing all three resources, answer the following reflection questions:

Make a list of at least three reasons.

  1. Why are some members of the Guatemalan population malnourished?
  2. Why is Guatemala facing this problem if it has one of the largest GDPs in Central America?
  3. Why are children the most at risk?

Extension Activities:

Write a letter to a Guatemalan politician with suggestions on how to fix the problem of malnutrition in the country. Be sure to cite facts from all three Pulitzer Center resources.

Educator Notes: 

In the following lesson plan, which is in line with Common Core Standards, students will investigate educational resources in order to understand the issue of malnutrition in Guatemala.


Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.

Lesson Facilitation Notes:

1. The lesson plan is written for students to be able to explore the resources independently and reflection exercises independently.

2. Students may need to have an extra sheet of paper, or a blank online document open, to answer the warm up, comprehension and extension questions.

3. The lesson lists several extension exercises. Students could choose one or work through all of the listed exercises.

4. The warm up and post-reading reflections in this lesson could also lead to rich conversations. You may want to work through the lesson along with the students and denote moments for interactive activities.

5. With questions about this lesson, contact education@pulitzercenter.org

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