From school milk to Head of Nutrition: Elia’s story

Past shapes today’s work improving the lives of children in El Salvador

Elia Martinez is committed to helping improve child nutrition in El Salvador. (Photo: WFP USA/Charles Fromm)

Elia Martinez still remembers the milk she received at school as a child in Chinameca, El Salvador. It came from the World Food Programme, and was her first contact with an organization that was to define the lives of both Elia and her mother. Here she explains more about her past and how it continues to fuel her determination to improve the lives and health of today’s generation of children in El Salvador.

For the rural indigenous community of Cacaopera, it was the river Torola that brought Elia Martinez back to them.

Years earlier she had bathed in its soothing waters, after an arduous eight-hour drive and trek to reach this remote outpost in the far northeastern corner of El Salvador.

Elia had been volunteering with French NGO Médecins du Monde on a nutrition project for undernourished children in a community which, according to UNESCO, is home to the sole surviving members of an otherwise vanished indigenous ethnic group, variously referred to as Ulua, Matagalpa or Cacaopera.

She would return several years later, this time as a nutritionist with the World Food Programme (WFP). “The people in Cacaopera have a saying that if you swim in the river, you will come back. They would always tell me that this is why I came back,” says Elia, whose skills and commitment in this line of work saw her progress to become WFP’s Head of Nutrition in El Salvador.

There is little doubt that Elia’s experiences in Cacaopera helped set her on a path leading to WFP, and fired her determination to tackle the poor nutrition and related stunting that now affect up to 40 percent of children aged under 5 in rural areas.

“This was the experience that really marked my life,” she says. “Even back then, when I was working in Cacaopera, I would see WFP colleagues coming to the community as well, and I would think: ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

“After I came back to that community, this time as a staff member of WFP, I knew I was doing what I really loved,” says Elia. “It was a dream. It’s a true gift.”

Elia with children involved in the Nutrimos El Salvador project. Photo: WFP/Claudia Rivera

Elia’s mother was also to prove a strong influence. As a Ministry of Health nurse during the country’s civil war of 1979 to 1992, Hilda Martinez worked with WFP on its nutrition projects.

“She always talked to us — my brother, sister and me — about the importance of good health and nutrition,” recalls Elia.

“She was always concerned about the difficulties faced by children, and she always found a way to help people in rural areas, the most affected at that time because of poor access to health services, especially the children and their mothers.

“Her dedication to her work related to child health inspired me to study nutrition and to work for the children in my country.”

Elia’s connection to WFP extends to the school milk she received as a child, to help ensure healthy development of children in her community.

Her role in nutrition could hardly be more critical, in a country where stunting in children under 5 overlaps with anaemia in women and obesity and overweight in adults — fuelled by poor access to nutritious food, lack of vegetables and fruits, and insufficient nutritional awareness.

Children affected by stunting are weaker, smaller and more likely to get sick than their healthy peers. As adults, those who have been stunted by childhood malnutrition typically earn less than their counterparts and lead less productive lives, continuing an ongoing cycle of poverty.

Against this backdrop, Elia has overseen all of WFP’s programmes including fighting malnutrition and improving maternal and child health.

Key among these are efforts to ensure that children receive proper nutrition during the first 1,000 days from a mother’s pregnancy to a child’s second birthday.

Poor nutrition during this time can have lifelong consequences for the brain, body and psyche, many of which are irreversible.

“Rural families don’t have the same access to food, either economic or physical,” says Elia. “This, combined with a general lack of knowledge around nutrition, is what makes rural families more vulnerable to food insecurity.

Children with WFP biscuits at a rural health centre in the La Paz region of El Salvador (Photo: WFP/Claudia Rivera)

WFP’s efforts to address this problem include its Nutrimos El Salvador project, which boosts the government’s ability to provide critical nutrition for pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children.

Families receive an e-card that is topped up with money each month, for spending on fresh food at a local grocery store. Those in remote areas can buy two months’ worth of groceries at once, so they can reduce the number of long treks to the store.

WFP also carries out intermittent food distributions, ensuring that every family taking part in the programme has access to nutritious food.

Among the items distributed are specialized nutritious foods that help prevent malnutrition in children.

WFP is also helping families to create home and community gardens that supplement the food they buy through e-cards. These gardens provide a source of fresh vegetables for families, while excess produce can be sold at markets or in the community.

“Nutrition is the foundation for future success,” says Elia. “By investing in the health of pregnant mothers and young children, we are helping families build stronger communities, and communities build a stronger country.”

There have been some encouraging signs of progress in recent years, with stunting rates in under 5s falling from 19 to 14 percent between 2008 and 2014.

Elia’s goal is to continue this momentum. She was recently appointed Head of Social Protection in El Salvador, and in this role will oversee work to shelter communities from the threats posed by shocks such as natural disasters or fluctuating markets. Naturally a major element of this work focuses on nutrition.

Her background and experiences continue to provide an ongoing sense of perspective: “Watching the country develop and evolve over the decades, and watching how humanitarian assistance has also evolved — not only for myself, being a beneficiary in the ’80s, a volunteer in the ’90s and now as a staff member since the 2000s — has been valuable in my work,” she says.

“Sometimes I think: ‘Why do I wake up every day?” And the answer is always the same: To serve the child who needs help.”

This is an abridged version of an original article by Charles Fromm for WFP USA. You can read the full version here.

You can read more about WFP’s work in El Salvador here.

World Food Programme Insight

Insight by The World Food Programme