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Combatting Malnutrition with Indigenous Superfoods

By Jesse Hoffman

Guatemala has the highest rate of malnutrition in the western hemisphere and the 4th highest in the world[1]. In the communities in which Semilla Nueva works, this a daunting and persistent reality. In the coastal region where we work, half of all children under 5 are chronically undernourished and 4 out of 10 are stunted[2][3]. We need to find ways that families can sustainably grow their own way out of malnutrition.


In our communities we are promoting the use of an indigenous superfood once seen as a staple of the Mayan diet. Chaya is a leafy green plant native to the region that’s been called a miracle plant due to its durability and high nutrient content. It grows up to 10 feet tall, is drought resistant, resistant to heavy rainfall and humidity, and fast growing. In only one serving (about 25 leaves) you get as much protein as an egg, with additional vitamins A and C, folic acid, calcium and iron. Watch out kale, here comes the superfood of Central America!


We all know spinach is considered a healthy and highly nutritious food. But who knew that leaf for leaf Chaya, the lesser known vegetable, wins out! Chaya contains twice the protein of spinach, twice the iron, twice the calcium, 6 times the vitamin A, and 3 times the vitamin C!


Our Food Security extensionist is currently running cooking classes with women’s groups in 9 coastal communities. We cook variations of local and popular dishes, and collaborate with the women to find creative ways to incorporate Chaya into the recipes. In the last few months these women’s groups have made chaya soup, chaya lemonande, and Tamalitos wrapped in chaya leaves. Those participating in the classes regularly already know up 5 different Chaya recipes.


Early results from our 2013 nutrition survey show that women have a strong interest in Chaya, seeing it as a free source of nutritious food. Access to Chaya remains the issue – only a handful of women in these communities have Chaya plants and there are no existing local markets to buy them. To help combat the access issue and begin the movement back towards the regular use of this native plant, Semilla Nueva is distributing hundreds of Chaya treelings this summer with the help of Miracles in Action.

The best part is that we are not the only ones catching on to the Chaya craze. Organizations like Miracles in Action, the Guatemalan Government and local universities like Universidad del Valle are all studying and promoting Chaya as a superfood. With the help of local communities, we are working towards a healthier and stronger coastal region of Guatemala.

[1] World Food Program
[2] World Food Program

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