March 5, 2014

Roger Thurow - Outrage and Inspire - Go(a)t Milk? – Part II

This post by senior fellow Roger Thurow originally appeared on the Outrage and Inspire blog. 

MEDIA LUNA, Guatemala—A goat? Diego Sarat scratched his head. What’s a goat?

His wife had just returned from a community meeting and reported that she had signed up for a new program which would give their family a goat.

“I didn’t even know what a goat was,” Diego recalls now. “We didn’t know how to handle livestock.”

That befuddling day in May 2008 turned out to be a turning point for the health of his family. The goat was part of a program run by Save the Children, the international humanitarian organization, to improve the nutrition of children in Guatemala’s western highlands, particularly in the 1,000 days from when a woman becomes pregnant to the second birthday of the child. In this region, nearly three-quarters of the children are malnourished, and many of them are stunted physically and mentally due to micro-nutrient deficiencies during their first two years of life.

“The main thing was to get animal protein into their diets,” says Carlos Cardenas, Save the Children’s Guatemala director, about the goat milk program.

Guatemala is a country of stunning paradox, illustrating that malnutrition isn’t just the absence of food but the absence of nutritious foods and well-balanced diets. Corn grows up and down the lush hillsides and all manner of vegetables blanket the verdant valleys, most of them destined for export markets. Still, Guatemala has the highest malnutrition rates in the Americas. In the western highlands, where poverty rates soar past 80 percent, poor families can’t afford to purchase nutrient-laden, protein-rich foods vital for the physical and mental development of their children, particularly in the first years of life.

Save the Children’s goat program was designed for families with a child under three years old. A single goat would produce enough for one glass of milk a day for that child.

At the time his goat arrived, Diego’s youngest child, Haroldo, was two and not doing well. He was small, skinny, lethargic. “He was malnourished,” his father says. “But once he started drinking milk every day, we could see him improve.”

Today, the boy comes bounding down a hill to greet visitors with high-fives and fist bumps. He’s eight now, and his father reports, thriving in both Sunday school and primary school, where he is in the first grade. The impact of the earlier malnutrition is still visible; he is physically stunted. He isn’t much taller than his 5-year-old brother, Ariel, who has had the benefit of a glass of goat milk since he was a toddler.

Since 2008, more than 1,600 families have received goats (others received chickens for daily eggs), and for many of them, the program has grown beyond a glass of milk. Diego now has seven mature goats producing more than enough milk for his family; he shares the surplus with neighborhood children. He has also constructed goat pens to collect the droppings and urine, which he bottles and sells as urea-rich fertilizer. The goats are now milk producers and income generators; Diego uses the money to diversify the family’s diet and buy foods he couldn’t afford before.

Where once there were no goats, a chain of milk production is now beginning to stretch across the Quiché area of the highlands. Save the Children, with support from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, is building the Highland Goat Production Center to train hundreds of local farmers in goat-rearing practices. It is a sleek complex that can house up to 300 goats. Some of the pens are reserved for pairing native goats with other breeds to improve the milk production of their offspring. The center will also be a collection point for the surplus milk of individual farmers in the area. It is gearing up to turn out an array of dairy products, like cheese, yogurt, sweets and facial creams.

It is an ambitious program to reduce the poverty of highland families. But Cardenas urges the farmers to never lose sight of the central purpose: a daily glass of milk to help conquer the malnutrition of their children. Satisfy your family first, and then the market, he says. And resist the temptation to eat the goat, he tells the farmers. A barbecue may provide food for a day, but a living goat provides a glass of milk for years.

“This is all about sustained availability of milk for children,” Cardenas says.

He wants everyone to be able to answer “yes” to the question: Go(a)t milk?

Also read Carlos Carrazana’s guest commentarty: Go(a)t Milk?.

Roger’s international reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Get The Chicago Council’s FREE Global Food for Thought News Brief delivered to your inbox weekly! Sign up here.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA