Distant mountains lead to rolling green hillsides and stepped rice terraces in this rural agricultural province in Vietnam. The environment is beautiful, lush, fertile. So much so, that you would never know that children here suffer from malnutrition.
Holt’s Child Nutrition Program (CNP) team in Vietnam started working in this community in 2019 because of a common and critical need — children’s high risk of malnourishment and anemia.
Holt’s Child Nutrition Program is a nutrition and feeding intervention designed to support parents and caregivers to improve children’s health and growth. This program is successfully being implemented in seven countries and more than 55 locations, reaching thousands of children around the world.
“When we came to [this province],” says a Holt Vietnam CNP team member, “we saw that many children and families lacked the proper resources or knowledge about how to ensure that the meals they were eating were enough to support a full and healthy development.”
Children mostly ate rice, and other empty-calorie foods — and nearly no vegetables or proteins. And it was evident. Children were visibly and dangerously thin, often got sick and had low energy levels.
So the Holt Child Nutrition Program team in Vietnam set to work in the community, starting by screening over 150 children at a local daycare.
The results confirmed their suspicions: 27 percent of the children were anemic.
This concerned Holt staff. When children have iron deficiency anemia, it is often a symptom of poor nutrition, a parasitic infection or frequent diarrhea. Sometimes all three. And if anemia is left untreated, children’s mental and physical development is in danger. When children are anemic, they can be tired, irritable, pale, have poor immunity and underachieve in school — all of which the children here experienced.
Children can be especially at risk for becoming anemic in their first months and years of life. This is when they have the highest nutritional needs because they are growing and building tissues and blood. Often, if a child is born prematurely or has a malnourished mother, they already start off in great deficit. Lack of breastfeeding further exacerbates this nutritional gap, and breastfeeding is increasingly uncommon in impoverished communities like this one in Vietnam.
Unfortunately, anemia is one of the most common issues Holt’s CNP team uncovers in children in orphanage care and living in poverty all around the world. But this also means that they knew just what to do.
Holt’s CNP team takes a multi-faceted approach to solve nutrition-related issues. In Vietnam, the CNP team began providing iron supplements and treatment for diarrhea and other illnesses. But for there to be lasting change, they knew they had to support the parents with nutrition education and resources to help their children grow and thrive.
Throughout the year, over 80 parents were trained on nutrition and health basics — subjects such as iron deficiency anemia, meal planning, and hygiene and sanitation.
“Parents were so engaged, because where they lived [they had] very few health resources or education opportunities about how to help their children grow and stay healthy,” says someone on the Holt Vietnam CNP team. “They were all excited to see how making small changes in meals could have a big impact on their kids’ growth and health.”
And by the end of one year, every single child in the program was healthy and no longer anemic!
This was a major achievement of both good follow-up treatment and the amazing commitment and changes families made to ensure bright, healthy futures for their children. Parents now understand the importance of a balanced diet, as well as the importance of teaching it to their children. They now know how to promote proper food and personal hygiene for their family’s overall health, and prevent other medical issues like food-borne illness, infections and anemia.
And the results are obvious. Today, children are more active and playful and visibly healthier looking.
Based on the success of this program here and the ongoing support, the Holt Vietnam CNP team is now identifying new locations in Vietnam to implement this amazing program to reach more families and children.
Emily DeLacey MS, RDN, LDN | Director, Nutrition Program