Malnutrition and Education in Guatemala

This post by Fellow, Ian Zimmermann has been cross-posted from the Current TV News Blog.

Q: What are you first impressions? How does your new home compare to where you live in the US?
What an amazing place! I grew up in a small New England town, so in terms of the number of people here, it’s certainly nothing too overwhelmingly different; that said, it can be impossible to find certain things here. Want to buy some peanuts? Too bad – you have to travel an hour and a half to find any. I honestly had no idea that there exist people this friendly! Everyone wants to say buenos dias to you and start a conversation. One huge pro of there being very little to actually do here is that human relationships end up being valued above all else.

Q: What are some of the local issues facing the community you’re in?
Lack of educational opportunities must be the most pressing concern here. Only last year did Nebaj – a community of over 20,000 – open its doors to the first free public basico (roughly junior high). If a student decides to go on for a diversificado (high school diversification), the options that exist are limited to three professions: a banker (impractical because there are only two banks in the city), a college track (impractical to most because there are no universities within an hour), or a teacher (the only profession in which it is possible to find work).

Looking outside of Nebaj into the surrounding communities, one of the biggest problems is malnutrition. Beans, rice, and tortillas are great and all – but they frankly don’t make up a balanced diet. In an attempt to raise awareness to this issue, one of our projects is to begin a vegetable garden with kids at a community center called El Centro Explorativo in La Pista. We hope this project will lead families to start their own vegetable gardens as a means for which to improve the local diet.

Q: How are those issues indicative of bigger global challenges or trends?
Lack of access to education is definitely one of the biggest barriers to self empowerment in developing countries. Specifically in Guatemala, one of the major problems is the lack of government spending on education caused directly by the very limited tax base in the country – the majority of industry takes place under the table. Malnutrition certainly plagues many developing countries and one of the large problems is that most people don’t actually know that they are malnourished because they have no idea of the concept of a “balanced diet.”

Q: How does what happens in this community affect the folks back home in the US? And the other way around – how do lives and decisions in the US affect the community you’re in now?
Directly, what happens in this community affects the States because of how many Guatemalans are, in fact, living there. Both my host family’s father and oldest son have lived in Miami for three and four years, respectively. Simultaneously, the families with relatives in the States need the money those relatives earn to subsist. The recent economic crisis has definitely affected the families here because it means, simply, that there is less money to be had.