CHOQUISIS, Guatemala—In this tiny, impoverished village, burrowed in the jagged mountains of Guatemala's Western Highlands, Cristina Itsep Perez is making million-dollar gruel.
Under a corrugated tin roof, in a one-room kitchen adorned with colorful pots, pans, and baskets, she's furiously mixing Mi Comidita, a corn-and-soy blend fortified with 19 vitamins and minerals. The Canadian government has poured $2 million in aid into the product—a super-cereal for kids during their pivotal first two years, and specially designed for a country with the world's fourth-highest chronic undernutrition rate for children under five. In isolated, largely indigenous communities like Choquisis, child malnutrition rates can reach 70 or 80 percent, severely hindering kids' ability to grow, learn, work, and lead healthy lives for years to come. These dubious distinctions make Guatemala a laboratory of sorts for innovations in the production and delivery of micronutrient-fortified food.
It's a surprisingly vibrant field. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Hormel Foods, for instance, have engineered a vitamin-stocked turkey paste called Spammy that comes in a tuna-can-like container with a cartoon turkey on the front, and is served to Guatemalan schoolchildren in the form of chuchitos, dobladas, and tostadas. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has turned to a computer-software program called Optifood to identify local foods, fortified foods, and micronutrient powders that can fill gaps in Guatemalans' diets at the lowest possible cost.
As for Mi Comidita, there's a method to how it made its way from the outskirts of Guatemala City, where the food is manufactured, to Perez's stove. Each month, the World Food Program and the Guatemalan government distribute two bags of Mi Comidita to each family that visits a local health center, incentivizing parents to get their children check-ups and vaccinations. The recipe is simple, requiring nothing more than a pot, a spoon, a measuring cup, and hot water, and no more than five minutes of prep time (long cooking times can degrade nutritional value). Instructions include pictures for those who are illiterate. The fortified food is integrated into a program in which mothers serve as madres consejeras, or "mother-counselors," for other pregnant and nursing mothers seeking advice on breastfeeding and proper nutrition. The groups meet once a month.