Green Means Go for Healthy Habits in Guatemalan Schools

November 30, 2017
Amy WattsKimberly, a third grade student of Xetzac School, demonstrates good hygiene to her fellow students.

For most children in rural Guatemala, water is a scarce resource. Only 18 percent of households have access to piped water in their homes. Among those homes, 90 percent do not have water that is safe enough to drink. Functional water, sanitation and hygiene facilities are a necessary step to creating healthy schools and improving nutrition.

To improve nutrition among Guatemalan children, the USDA McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Investment for Educational Development in the Highlands (IDEA) project focuses on student health and hygiene practices in schools as part of Feed the Future. Implemented by Save the Children, the project provides daily school meals to more than 42,000 students in 273 schools, along with other interventions to improve student literacy, health and dietary practices.

To prevent contamination of school meals, the project trains school staff in essential hygiene skills and provides infrastructure improvements to school communities. Since contamination can occur any time between preparation and consumption, and since various people and steps are involved in creating these school meals, it’s important that people at all levels of the school (cooks, teachers, students, etc.) understand hygiene. The project provides water filters for classrooms and school kitchens, and it has constructed and rehabilitated 211 sanitation facilities and 151 handwashing stations.

“We are very happy. Before, we had to carry water to the kitchen, and most of the time it was not clean,” said Maria, a mother at San Siguán School. “Now we have water filters and water to prepare clean school meals for the children.”

As with all infrastructure investments, proper training is required to ensure parents, teachers and the community support the proper use and maintenance of school improvements. IDEA staff have conducted 277 healthy school trainings as part of ongoing training efforts to equip teachers with fun tools for learning and positive discipline tactics to further instill in students the importance of good food and personal hygiene practices. 

To complement school level improvements and community training, IDEA trains children to be leaders and active participants in the health of their schools.

Kimberly, a third grade student and school government member of Xetzac School in the Cunen municipality, is one of these leaders. Kimberly follows the ‘Cleanliness Traffic Light’ method, which consists of student-led inspections to publically monitor, track and report the hygiene conditions in school. “We check the cleanliness of the classrooms, bathrooms, patio, kitchen, cellar and hallways,” Kimberly said. “We put green happy faces in the areas that are clean, and red sad faces in places that need to be cleaned. Before, there were more sad faces, but now almost all the faces are happy.”

All students learn and practice personal hygiene in schools, including handwashing with soap and oral hygiene. Through IDEA’s partnership with Colgate-Palmolive, the project has provided more than 42,000 students with oral hygiene kits including toothpaste, toothbrushes, hand towels and cups. This product donation allows schools to establish “hygiene corners” in classrooms where children can keep their hygiene kits and subsequently brush their teeth after eating school meals. “Now students ask to brush their teeth after their school meal; it is an activity that they complete every day with their class,” said the director of Xetzac School.   

The promotion of health and hygiene in schools requires coordination at several levels of the program so that children can learn healthy behaviors. Toothbrush donations allow kids to build healthy habits, and student leadership creates positive reinforcement by building social norms around hygiene. Finally, a hygienic environment in schools ensures that children can safely practice those habits while getting the most out of their nutritious meals.

Save the Children is a global leader in the field of School Health and Nutrition with programs in 20 countries across all global regions.  In 2016, more than 3 million children benefited from Save the Children School Health and Nutrition programs, enabling them to stay in school to reach their educational potential, while also learning skills to keep themselves safe and healthy for life.