Who would think that on the beautiful island of Weno, Chuuk State—a paradise at first glance, many children are hungry and sickly, and some die due to severe malnutrion? The Salvation Army has been operating here in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) for 20 years. The work started when, thanks to mutual acquaintances, Lieutenant Mike Eyers met with Hermes Otis, then a pastor in Weno, Chuuk. When Eyers explained the Army’s mission, Otis was excited about the impact the Army might have in Chuuk. He was hired to plant a corps and begin prison ministry and then provided relief following major storms that swept through the area. Otis and his wife Rufina eventually rose to the rank of captain. Major John Chamness, divisional commander, says, “Without the Otises there would be no Salvation Army in Chuuk.”
Through the years, the Army focused mainly on spiritual development through its corps activities and social services through distribution of material assistance and food parcels.
DISCOVERING A HEALTH CRISIS
In the three years that we served on the island, we observed that most of the children at our children’s meeting appeared thin, pale and weak and had difficulty learning. Nine and ten year-olds struggled to write their names, let alone read and write simple words in their own language.
Our research showed that these problems are caused by severe malnourishment. Most families do not serve the balanced diet children need for healthy minds and bodies. We also observed that at some of our Sunday fellowship meals, where members are encouraged to bring their local food, they bring canned fish, processed meats and local foods heavy in carbohydrates; foods like taro, yam, cooked banana and breadfruit. One fisherman sells his catch in order to buy sardines for his family’s meal.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nutrient deficiencies are common in the Pacific Islands. In 15 of 16 countries surveyed, more than one-fifth of children and pregnant women were anemic. About 40% of the region’s population of 9.7 million people has been diagnosed with a non-communicable disease, notably cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension. These diseases account for three quarters of all deaths across the Pacific archipelago, which includes Micronesia.
With increasing population growth and a decline in subsistence farming, the demand for food in the Pacific Islands is increasingly being met by imports. Imported staples such as rice and wheat flour are replacing locally-grown carbohydrates. The growing prevalence of canned/processed foods and other poor quality protein such as mutton flaps, turkey tails and Spam further contributes to the health crisis.
Poverty is the principal cause of hunger and hunger perpetuates poverty. Poor people’s lack of access to resources results from extremely unequal income distribution the world over and within specific countries.
In 2008, the World Bank estimated that 20 percent of the households in FSM live on $1.25 a day or less. Unemployment is rampant. More than 50% of the available work force of Chuuk is unemployed. Chuuk has been included in the list of top ten countries with the lowest literacy rate. The United Nations has declared that Pacific Island countries including the FSM be placed on a “state of health emergency” due to an alarming increase of non-communicable diseases (NCD).
Having assessed the people’s situation and in response to their felt needs, The Salvation Army in Chuuk, has offered Integrated Literacy and Nutrition and Sustainable Food Production Programs as of 2014.
INTEGRATED LITERACY, NUTRITION, FOOD PRODUCTION
In the first year of implementing a literacy program, we devoted two hours a day, four days a week after school to hold remedial classes. These were designed especially for children who have difficulty learning. We also began holding literacy classes for adults. Recently, Major Lilia Macayana, FSM coordinator for resource development, reported that “Our literacy and after school classes continue to attract boys and girls who want to learn how to read and write in English. Many are newcomers and most of them received Jesus in their hearts as their personal Savior. We don’t only teach them reading and writing, but we also teach them good manners and right conduct and faith in God.”
Most of the children who attended our after school classes now attend Sunday school at the corps. Many of their parents also come to the Army on Sundays with their children.
To extend the impact and benefit of the programs, we arranged with the principal of Iras Demonstration Elementary School to integrate nutrition and food production in their school curriculum for seventh and eighth grade students for the school year 2016-2017. By influencing the children, they become agents for transformation in their homes and community. Our plan is to implement this program every school year.
Economic growth, especially broad based growth in agriculture and the rural economy, is a necessary condition for reducing poverty and hunger. More than 75% of Chuuk’s population lives in rural and remote areas. At least once a month, while the children are in class, their parents receive training in proper nutrition, food preparation and cooking. We then serve the food the parents have prepared to the children. Each week, we demonstrate food production through gardening in the parents’ own backyards so they can put what they learn into practice.
The practical steps the Army has taken to promote agriculture and rural development has resulted in improved economic stability and healthy living. Malnutrition among children has been greatly reduced and consequently young people are able to enjoy and benefit from their education.
Through this integrated approach, our children have gained weight and their parents who are overweight lost weight as well.
The Salvation Army in Chuuk is grateful to program partners who support these projects, including Dr. Lolita Ragus, researcher/extension specialist for the College of Micronesia at Chuuk, the Parent Teacher Association of the Iras Demo Elementary School and members of the Army’s Advisory Board.
Major Jaime Macayana is FSM Coordinator for Resource Development.