TOLEDO, Philippines — Gathered together in matching green and white shirts with the slogan “We Care,” the members of the Toledo Philippines District showed a visible sense of unity and urgency. They spent a month preparing for a child malnourishment screening at their local meetinghouse, but their planning didn’t prepare them for the results of the day.
Around 50% of the children Franchette Bautista treats at the government clinic where she works as a general physician in Toledo are malnourished.
“We thought the members were probably OK because they go to Church, they play, they are happy children,” she continued.
But after screening 129 children from their district, the Toledo district nutrition committee — consisting of district and branch leaders and other member volunteers from the area — discovered that more than 68 percent were categorized as severely malnourished.
“I was really shocked right after the screening,” said President Lauro Bautista Jr., the Toledo district president. “Now we need to do something about it.”
The Toledo Philippines District is the eighth district or stake in the Philippines to do an organized nutrition screening for children in its area. Over the coming months, it will join the others in developing a program to address the issues of malnutrition among children from newborn to 5 years old.
Following guidelines laid out by the World Health Organization and the Philippines Department of Health, a basic nutrition screening for children in the Philippines takes the ratios of weight to age, height to age, and weight to height and compares them against the standards or averages set out for their specific country. The screening flags children, according to their data, as falling into categories of concern like stunted, underweight or severely underweight. In recent years, concerns have been raised in the Philippines particularly for stunting and poor cognitive development of children who are malnourished during their first years of development.
Under the direction of the Philippines Area presidency and their local leadership, Church members in the Philippines are becoming more aware of the problems of malnourishment and are eagerly taking action to develop solutions that will offer better and healthier futures for their children.
“There is strength in numbers,” said President Bautista, who is confident the district will band together to tackle this challenge now that it understands how much it affects families here.
Following the Toledo screening on Saturday, Feb. 8, which took place at the Church meetinghouse in Toledo, President Jean B. Bingham, Relief Society general president, shared her love and concern for the members and families facing the challenge of malnourishment throughout the Philippines.
“It’s heartbreaking to think there are so many children who don’t have enough to eat or who aren’t getting the right things to eat that their bodies need,” she said. “But by reaching out as the Savior did, we can help lift their burdens, one by one.”
Just days before joining the Toledo district for its nutrition screening, Sister Bingham had visited with families in Catarman, Philippines, where a nutrition pilot program has been established for a year. The improvement shown in the children and families in Catarman gives her hope that the continued work of members in Toledo will bring swift change for those suffering from malnourishment, she said.
In Toledo, the members have already shown their commitment through the time and care they put into the screening. By continuing that commitment and showing their love for one another by ministering, counseling together and stepping up to help where they see need, they will meet this challenge, she said.
And members in Toledo are already stepping up to the challenge. District and branch leaders discussed their next steps in a meeting following the screening. Commitments to break the cycle of malnutrition in their area include working together to attend to the needs of each family with a malnourished child or children, partnering with local and government entities to ensure access to the necessary resources, and developing and integrating better nutritional education into their welfare and self-reliance and ministering programs.
President Bautista noted they will also seek to reach out to all those members with children who have not yet participated in the screening to ensure that the needs of all the children in their area can be accounted and cared for.
Franchette Bautista also explained her plan to help the district develop a curriculum or series of classes similar to those used for the self-reliance program. Instruction would focus on progressive information regarding food sanitation and preparation, nutritional content of foods and creating a balanced diet, prenatal care for pregnant mothers, and other skills to help parents ensure proper nutrition for children of all ages.
Based on the successes and ongoing efforts of the now eight stakes and districts in the Philippines that are piloting programs for malnutrition, the Church’s Welfare and Self-Reliance Services Department is looking at ways to continue and potentially expand the programs for other areas around the world facing similar issues. Additionally, the examples witnessed in the Philippines confirmed for Sister Bingham that the Relief Society has a valuable part to play in addressing issues of malnourishment among members and areas worldwide.
“In Catarman, the ministering sisters were an integral part of the successful effort to meet the needs of the malnourished children in their stake,” she said, noting how impressed she was by the way they followed up on a weekly basis with mothers who were anxious for their children to become healthy. “Relief Society sisters of all ages stepped forward to help.”