Editors Note: If you want to help an LDS child who is malnourished, you can be a part of this great effort. Instructions on what you can do to be involved are below.
“And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.”
We met little Chantal in the northern mountains of Iloilo Province during our recent work in the Philippines. As soon as I picked her up to put her on the scale, I noticed that her body was weaker and more emaciated than that of the other children we were screening for the Liahona Childrens Foundation that day. When we finished recording Chantals weight and height, we told her mother that we were concerned about her daughters health. By the look on her mothers face, we could tell that this was something she already knew. Tears welled up in her eyes as we gave her a high-protein supplement for her daughter.
Chantals lives in the Manoling Ward (Roxas Stake), one of the poorest wards in the Church and yet also one of the most faithful. Unemployment is high and was exacerbated by the typhoon that struck the Philippines in January. The malnutrition rate here (74%) was the highest we recorded during our recent work in the Philippines. Nevertheless, according to the stake president, the percentage of tithing worthy members is nearly 70%, much higher than the average ward in the Church. This is a pattern we find often in our work. Before leaving Manoling, we arranged for nutrition supplements to be provided for all the children we screened there, as we do elsewhere in the world.
We are a small foundation and cant hope to meet all of the needs of the children we screen, but there are times when our hearts tell us to do more, so before leaving to continue our screening in other wards, we took up a collection from our volunteer team and gave the money to the bishop to provide more immediate help for Chantel. It seemed like the least we could do.
Malnutrition is a serious problem throughout the developing world. According to UNICEF, over one quarter of the children in resource-poor countries are malnourished, over 100 million under the age of five are under weight, and 165 million are stunted in height. Many malnourished children suffer lifelong cognitive and physical defects that significantly reduce their earning potential as adults, invariably leaving them in poverty and reducing their capacity to fully contribute to society. These effects in turn contribute to a cycle in which their poverty leads to their own children and grandchildren being malnourished.
Because of the success of the Churchs missionary program in taking the restored gospel to many countries with high levels of malnutrition, it is not surprising to find acute and chronic malnutrition among Latter-day Saint children in many countries. For the past six years, the Liahona Childrens Foundation has been attempting to address malnutrition among Latter-day Saint children worldwide. The Foundation is a federally recognized 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization, independent of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Though not affiliated with the Church, the Foundation is nevertheless administered by faithful Latter-day Saints and funded by contributions from Latter-day Saints in the United States and elsewhere.
Based on its extensive experience over the past six years, the Foundation estimates that there are at least 120,000 malnourished children in the Church at present. Because malnutrition is often a “hidden” condition, it is not always easy to detect, except in severe cases. That is, a child may look like a healthy three year old and actually be a malnourished five year old, or one may assume a child is just naturally thin when in fact her thinness is a result of insufficient nutrition. Also, malnutrition has been so widespread and prevalent over generations in many cultures that people accept it as inevitable.
By measuring the height and weight of a child and plotting these data on standard World Health Organization growth charts, based on the gender and age of a child, the Foundations volunteer screeners can accurately identify those children who are malnourished. Working with local leaders and congregations in the developing world, Liahona volunteers screen LDS children and their non-member friends. With the assistance of stake and district leaders, the foundation next identifies and hires a local coordinator who, for a modest monthly stipend, is given the responsibility of administering the program. Coordinators maintain a list of names of children identified as needing help, along with their birthdays, height and weight, so they can conduct semi-annual re-screenings to track the progress of each child. Re-screenings show that children receiving the supplements make significant progress within a few months.
The program involves coordinators distributing nutrition supplements provided by the Foundation to needy children. Supplements consist of calorically dense products such as whole fat powered cows milk (or soy milk) for children over a year old and for children less than a year products such as infant cereals or formulas. In addition, the Foundation provides a micronutrient supplement rich in Vitamins A and D and in iron and zinc. These supplements are purchased locally to promote local economies.
The inspiration for establishing the Liahona Childrens Foundation came when Dr. Bradley Walker, the Foundations co-founder and current president, saw the emaciated body of a young Latter-day Saint child in Ecuador. The child, who was under the care of an LDS physician (and former stake president) in the ICU unit of a pediatric hospital in Guayaquil, had been fed platano (banana) water because his parents were too poor to afford milk. He died shortly after the following photograph was taken. Dr. Walker made a commitment to do whatever he could to end malnutrition among Latter-day Saint children.
The Liahona Childrens Foundation began its operation in eight stakes in Ecuador and Guatemala in 2008.
Stake leaders there arranged for interested parents to bring their children to church buildings at the appointed time; participants were encouraged to invite an inactive member or non-member friend whose child or children could be screened as well. Liahona volunteers, who included students from BYU and Utah Valley University, screened around four-thousand children in several weeks. Based on the Foundations experience in multiple countries over the past six years, this number was likely far less than the actual number of malnourished LDS children in the area.
Since 2008, the Foundation has screened and provided nutrition supplements for thousands of children in Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, South Africa, Cambodia and the Philippines. Current plans call for expanding the program into other countries in which it is anticipated there are significant levels of malnutrition, including in Asia, Africa, Central and South America, the South Pacific, and Haiti.
Sometimes the request for screening comes from area, stake/district or mission leaders. The following is an example from senior welfare missionaries working in Cambodia: “We read about your mission to help children. Can you come to Battambang? We have three thriving branches in our district with lots of children needing help. May I tell you about one child who, like many here, needs help? Leo, who is two, is stunted. Worms were extracted from both his hands. Many other children have scabies. Please come and help us.”
The foundation sent a team, headed by Dr. Polly Sheffield, a Utah County pediatrician, to screen the children. The results revealed that an alarming 76% of children screened in these three branches were malnourished. They are now getting the necessary supplements provided by the Foundation.
Another request came from Sister Olukunbi Orimoloye, a member of the Akure Nigeria branch serving as a volunteer with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, one of the most troubled regions of the world: Sister Orimoloye sent the following photograph:
She wrote, “These are the Primary Children in the LDS Juba, South Sudan branch. Their number keeps increasing every Sunday. They are very happy to come to Church even though they cannot speak English. We keep singing, ‘I Am a Child of God’ every Sunday. Many are starving, some are fatherless, and have no education or the means to go to school. The senior missionaries are really doing their best to help, but we cannot do it all. Please help these children.” Sister Onmoloue and others were only able to screen forty infants and children before civil conflict interrupted their work. The conflict in South Sudan has prevented the Foundation from providing supplements. The United Nations estimates that as many as four million people could starve to death in South Sudan if aid is not available soon. We pray that these children will soon be able to get the help they need.
Sometimes, a request for the Foundations help comes from a stake or district president in countries with high levels of malnutrition. At other times, it comes as the result of a leader who has felt inspired to contact us. Occasionally, it is a combination of the two. For example, after we contacted the stake president in Piura, Peru, to suggest screening the children in his stake, he wrote, “I had a dream last night that I was going to do something great for the kids in my stake. Such a wonderful dream. When I awoke, I had no idea what that could be, and then you called. Now I understand.”
The problem with Malnutrition is that it impairs the immune systems ability to function, leading to increased susceptibility to, and severity and duration of infectious diseases. Malnourished children often have delayed mental development, poor school performance, and reduced intellectual and economic productivity. Undernourished pregnant women are at a greater risk of infant mortality and childbirth, complications which means delivering a low birth weight infant and having an impaired ability to lactate. Adequately nourished children learn better, are more productive, have stronger immune systems and greater longevity, and are at a lower risk of non-communicable diseases than poorly nourished children. The effect of malnourishment on the brain of a child is especially devastating, as the following graphic reveals.
If malnourishment persists, the childs brain will decrease its rate of growth, leading to permanent brain damage. This produces severely reduced cognitive potential, which in turn decreases the ability to learn and function as a healthy adolescent and adult. According to a recent report by UNICEF, “There is better understanding of the crucial importance of nutrition during the critical 1,000-day period covering pregnancy and the first two years of a childs life, and of the fact that stunting reflects deficiencies during this period. The damage that stunting causes to a childs development is irreversible. Undernutrition early in life has major consequences for future educational, income and productivity outcomes.”
The cost of preventing such cognitive (and physical) impairment is surprisingly modest. The Liahona Childrens Foundation is able to provide the nutritional supplements for a child from 6 to 72 months (or until the sixth birthday) for around $400thats $400 for the entire five-year period in which the growth of a childs body and brain is at its most critical stage.
Without help, a malnourished child is less likely to succeed in school, graduate from high school or technical school, go on a mission, become employable, make a good marriage decision, and become a leader in the church or community. Thus, the return on investment (ROI) in addressing malnutrition is enormous, not only because (according to an editorial in the Deseret News [28 May 2013]), it significantly increases the childs earning power as an adult, but because a healthy, productive adults contribution to the Church in tithes and offerings over a lifetime is many times the $400 required to counter the effects of malnutrition, as the following graph demonstrates.
Estimated Return on Investment (ROI)Philippine Example, Selected Occupations
Monthly Income ($US)
Annual Income (x 12)
Life-time Income (x 40)
LDS Tithe/fast off. (x 0.11)
ROI to LDS Church (/400)
Customer Service Rep.
Teacher (w. MA)
The degree to which a healthy child who develops into a healthy adult will also be able to contribute to her church and community in other ways is beyond calculation.
Children whose malnourishment is not addressed are likely to be dependent on the Church and their government for the entirety of their lives and thus end up costing many times the $400 worth of nutritional supplements as well as the loss of service to the Church and community. Further, as indicated earlier, children whose malnourished state is not addressed are likely to continue the cycle of poverty that leads to intergenerational malnutrition. Thus, it seems evident that there is no more important or intelligent investment we can make in the future of the Church than to ensure that its children have the best opportunity to grow up healthy. This is why the Foundations motto is “Nourish a childs Potential.”
In his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Thomas Gray (1716-1771) speaks of how the world is lessened by the frustrated potential of another human being:
Perhaps in this neglected spot it laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands that the rod of empire might have swayd
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.
But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did neer unroll;
Chill Penury repressd their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.
No one knows whether some malnourished Cambodian boy might have the potential to be a bishop, a stake president, or even prophet of the Church, let alone a leading scientist or artist, just as no one knows whether a malnourished Guatemalan girl has the potential to become a Madame Curie, a Mother Theresa or a General President of the Relief Society. Gray speaks of “some mute, inglorious Milton” who lies in the churchyard; one might just as easily speak of a “mute, inglorious” Eliza R. Snow or James E. Talmage whose malnourished body, mind and imagination never grow to reach their potential.
Currently, the Liahona Childrens Foundation is meeting with Area authorities as well as representatives of the Churchs Welfare and Humanitarian Service divisions to explore how we can best work together for the benefit of the Churchs and the worlds children. The Foundations hope is to combine its work in screening children with the Churchs impressive and substantial welfare and humanitarian service resources in helping to provide the nutritional supplements and micro-nutrients these children need. The Foundation is currently exploring pilot programs with church leaders in several of the areas in which we are screening children.
Occasionally, members of the Foundation are asked why the Church itself isnt doing more to address malnutrition. Our first response is that, given the relatively hidden nature of malnutrition, it is often invisible. When ward, stake and area leaders discover through the Foundations work that malnutrition is a problem in their area, they almost always are motivated to address it. A second response is reflected in the following statement by President Gordon B. Hinckley, “I think there is a tendency among us to say, ‘Oh, the Church will take care of that. I pay my fast offering, let the Church take care of that.’ We need as individuals, I think, to reach down and extend a helping hand without notice . . . , to give of that with which the Lord has so generously blessed us.” It is for this reason that the Foundation has as its primary focus an appeal to individual members of the Church, especially those in the developed world where malnutrition is rarely seen, and encourage them to consider what they can do personally.
The Liahona Childrens Foundation has a number of ways in which individuals can participate in eliminating malnutrition. Ways to contribute, which can be found on our website , include making tax-deductible contributions, volunteering to participate in screenings through our Nutritour program, organizing a group of Latter-day Saints or a ward or stake to adopt a ward or stake which has a significant problem with malnutrition (see the “Adopt-a-stake” program on our website), and by telling others of our work (See “Get involved” on our website). They can also share one of the videos on our website, including our newest, “Our Beloved Children.”
Ultimately, the gospel of Christ calls each of us to do what we can for the poorest and neediest among us. The twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew in which Christ tells his followers that in as much as they respond to the hunger of the least among them by feeding them or not respond by withholding food from them, it is tantamount to either feeding him or turning him away hungry. In other words, keeping in mind that same scripture, it is on this basis that the King will invite us to sit either on his right or on his left hand. The work of Christ is both individual and collective. As Francisco Goldman asserts about this scripture, “The great metaphor at the heart of the Gospel According to Saint Matthew is that those who suffer and those who show love for those who suffer are joined through suffering and grace to Jesus Christ.”
What all of us can do personally and in our families and congregations is to believe that we can eliminate poverty and malnutrition. That, according to Elder Todd Cristofferson, is our joint stewardship: “The Lord called his people Zion, because there were no poor among them. If we would establish Zion . . . we must rise to this standard. It will become necessary . . . to care for the poor and needy with such effectiveness that we eliminate poverty among us. We cannot wait until Zion comes for these things to happenZion will come only as they happen” (address, General Conference, October 2008).
In speaking to the Saints about our responsibility to our children, President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “My pleaand I wish I were more eloquent in voicing itis a plea to save the children. Too many of them walk with pain and fear, in loneliness and despair. God bless us to be mindful of them, to lift them and guide them as they walk in dangerous paths, to pray for them, to bless them, to love them, to keep them secure until they can run with strength of their own.” (As quoted in “No more tender and beautiful picture,” Church News, week ending 23 Sept.2000.)
In Parts II and III of this report, Brother Rees reports on the work of the Foundation in Guatemala and the Philippines.
Robert Rees is co-founder and current Vice-President of the Liahona Childrens Foundation. He teaches Mormon Studies at Graduate Theological Union and at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a member of the San Rafael II Ward.