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Surprising Science

Bolivian Schools Fight Child Malnutrition With Native Foods

An innovative program in La Paz provides one free meal consisting of foods made from traditional ingredients. Malnutrition is down, but obesity is up.

What’s the Latest Development?

In Bolivia’s capital city of La Paz, a school meals program targeted at needy students in 411 public schools makes use of indigenous ingredients, such as amaranth and quinoa, to address long-standing health problems. Each student gets one free meal a day containing one or more of these ingredients, along with milk, yogurt and fruit. In the 12 years since the program was launched, malnutrition reports have been cut almost in half, and incidences of anemia have dropped from 37 to 2 percent. However, in that same time period, the proportion of overweight students has risen from 17 to 25 percent. 

What’s the Big Idea?

As is the case for much of the developed and developing world, including large portions of Central and Latin America, economic growth has led to changes in most Bolivians’ diets. A recent study links the decline in public health across the region to globalization and free trade, as more people, including kids, are exposed to cheap fast food with little nutritional value. In Bolivia, program head Gabriela Aro says they’re taking a holistic approach: “We are…viewing all three issues [malnutrition, anemia and obesity] as part of the same problem. We want to ensure the children…learn to make their own healthy choices.” 

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