Note: USAID and Peace Corps are both celebrating their 50th anniversaries this year, as well as their ongoing collaboration.  Both agencies have been active in Ghana since 1961. Currently, USAID is supporting volunteers’ innovative work in nutrition and food security as part of the Feed the Future Initiative.

In the very north of the Volta region of Ghana, in the Nkwanta South District, you can find the village of Jumbo #1. Almost without exception, every person in Jumbo is a farmer. Along with rearing free-range animals, they farm cassava, maize, soya beans, tomatoes, okra, peanuts, and yams. Lots and lots of yams. As a Peace Corps Volunteer I arrived in Jumbo in August 2010. One of my first observations was that the children were very small. I recognized that they were stricken with varying degrees of malnutrition. Swollen bellies, thin limbs, 2-year-olds who “used to walk” and “can’t” anymore; this is what I saw as commonplace.

Using funds from USAID’s Small Project Assistance Grant, I was able to conduct a nutrition program using the “Positive Deviant” (PD) Hearth methodology, which focuses on finding basic nutrition in the locally available foods and using those foods to make children healthier. The program seeks out a mother whose child is above average weight (the ‘positive deviant’) to serve as an example of someone who is doing a good job of nourishing her child. The remaining women in the program are selected due to the malnourishment of their own children, as determined by a weighing of every child under five.  For the 145 children weighed in Jumbo, the statistics were striking: only six percent of children were a healthy weight, and 67 qualified as being malnourished enough to participate in the program.

Participating mothers are invited to come with their child to a 12-day series of meetings to cook and have a health lesson (ranging from nutrition and sanitation to HIV/AIDS). The ingredients and recipes were local, the same things they’d cook in their homes. However, they learn to add certain ingredients like peanut paste, soya bean powder, and fresh Moringa leaves to increase the nutrition in the dishes. These more nutritious foods are commonly grown here, but are sold at market, not cooked within the home.

These efforts can have a big impact.  One of the PD children was Jagri, whose parents are farmers, just like the rest of the population in Jumbo. The reason she’s a healthy weight? Moringa. Her parents feed her Moringa at least once a day.

Three months later, the children’s average weight gain was 1.79 pounds, or 0.6 pounds per month. One child, Nakoja, gained 7.6 percent of his body weight!  The mothers loved the program, and constantly told me how much it helped their children. Even after the program, they say their children get sick less often, are more helpful and strong, talk more, play more, and are happier!

In all, 34 mother-child pairs participated in the program, and I encouraged the women to share what they learned with their neighbors, Also, with USAID sponsorship, I am working toward completing bamboo-fenced Moringa gardens in each of Jumbo’s 12 clans, so that everyone can cook with Moringa every day!

Tricia ‘Peterson’ Rasmussen is a Peace Corps Volunteer from Reedsburg, Wisconsin. Before joining, she worked at the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison Wisconsin as a Registered Nurse. She is currently serving with her husband (Kris) in Jumbo #1 Volta Region, Ghana. They will complete their service in August 2012.