YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Children in Zambia are not growing enough, and Catholic Charities is trying to help.

According to the Zambia Demographic and Health survey from 2014, approximately half of all children living in rural areas experience stunting, along with 35–40 percent of children living in urban areas.

The Food and Agriculture Organization defines stunting simply as “shortness for age”- a condition that has long-term effects on individuals and societies, and particularly for children under the age of five, since that’s the period they undergo the most development.

According to the UN agency, stunting increases risks of morbidity and mortality, poorer school performance because of diminished cognitive development, reduces physical development, and increases the risk of non-communicable diseases.

It is a situation driven by poor nutrition, according to Juan Sheenan, the Catholic Relief Service country representative for Zambia.

“One of the reasons for stunting, especially in the Eastern Province where CRS works, is poor diet that is focused on maize with little to no protein or vegetables. Many children are just eating maize one or two times a day while their mothers work on the farm. Therefore, these children are getting little nutrition in their daily meals,” he told Crux.

Sheenan said Catholic Relief Services and Caritas had partnered with the country’s government to identify children under the age of five who are severely malnourished and stunted and then “introduces wild endemic vegetables into their diet. The key to our program is that we are not bringing in food from outside but rather introducing foods already existing in the area that people eat regularly. “

He said CRS, a government representative, or a partner staff would also accompany the mother and child to a medical clinic for a monitoring visit.

If the staff at the clinic finds that the child is severely malnourished and stunted, “we introduce the child to vegetables and other nutritious locally-sourced foods.”

After a month, the representative will return to the clinic with the child for a check-up.

“What’s amazing is that usually these children graduate out of the malnourished state and are no longer stunted and can leave the program within six months. When mothers see that there is very little cost associated with providing nutritious food for their children, they are more than willing to adopt these methods. In fact, what they usually end up finding is that there is a savings from adopting our approach because when a child is malnourished or stunted the parents are forced to spend money on medical bills and transportation. So keeping a child healthy can save the family money, and is also very good for the child in terms of education, and later on the economic value that they can provide to their society as part of a healthy active workforce,” Sheenan told Crux.

He said CRS also trains community members on how to prepare the meals and how to train other mothers “so that there is a trickle-down effect. We also train the families in health, nutrition, and water, sanitation and hygiene because those are very linked to good nutrition.”

The CRS rep said it was good to see mothers’ faces light up when they learn their children have improved and are no longer severely malnourished.

“It’s also gratifying to know that because of their child’s improved health, these parents have additional money to spend on other things, such as school supplies or agricultural inputs. In addition, when communities see that their neighbor’s child is no longer malnourished, they obviously become very interested in getting into the program and that sets off an even greater trickle-down effect, which is great,” Sheenan said.

He has examples of mothers like Evelina Banda whose once stunted son, Stephan is now a four-year old school boy.

“The program really did change everything for her family. She became very confident in the way she walked and talked because she was so happy that her child was no longer sick, and this also had a trickle effect with the neighbors.”

Sheenan said families in the eastern province (where CRS works) have started to come together to plant little community gardens because “they have seen the success of what the diversification of diets does. Communities have come together and said ‘let’s make this work.’”

He said there was a sense that the project is sustainable because of the buy-in from the government.

“The government has taken ownership of the program and has seen first-hand how successful it is.”

However, Sheenan expressed regrets that the program hasn’t reached out to all the affected areas, and therefore its impact isn’t as large as he would like.

“In order to scale up, we would need donors to see the importance of bringing this to scale to reach not only the entire Eastern Province but, in the rest of the country.”