The Fijian government actually requested that Peace Corps send 25 volunteers to work specifically with the Ministry of Health. Although it’s probably one of the most fertile places in the world and fruits literally fall off of trees and rot everyday, there is actually a noncommunicable disease (diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, strokes) crisis throughout Fiji and the whole Pacific! Instead of choosing to eat the fresh fruits and vegetables like their forefathers did, people are choosing packaged foods like Ramen Noodles and tinned fish that are very high in saturated fats and salt. Most meals here consist primarily of carbohydrates, especially for children.
Because of the way that adults are eating and taking care of their bodies, children are being fed the same things and are learning the same behaviors. Malnutrition in children under the age of five is a big issue in Fiji. The challenging thing here is that malnutrition is not like malnutrition in countries like Tanzania where people literally don’t have enough food and are starving. Most cases of malnutrition here are protein energy malnutrition (although there are still some children that sadly die of starvation as well). Parents usually do not understand that children need balanced meals with fruits, vegetables, protein, and carbohydrates to grow. The child then looks “healthy” to the parent because they may have a big belly (from kwashiorkor malnutrition) so the parents do not see the problem.
Another issue is that mother’s do not usually understand what to feed their babies once they can start introducing complimentary foods at 6 months. Even after the age of 5 years old, children are still not always fed balanced meals. While observing the children’s homemade lunches during our visits to primary schools, most of the lunches consisted of noodles and rice. It was very rare to see a piece of fruit or any sort of vegetable.
Our biggest role here is education. Educate the mothers to give themselves, their babies, and their children balanced meals and then the children will learn by example. The children are also the key to saving the next generation from some of these issues. Going on school visits and interacting with the children in my community has really taught me that the children ARE listening and want to make a change for themselves and their communities.
This blog was written by Sarah Al-Haj, a Community Health Promotion Volunteer for the Peace Corps and an alumni of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. UFWH thanks you, Sarah, for making a difference in others’ lives every single day.