UN World Food Programme

Men, Machetes and Micro-nutrients (Staff Profile)

Silvia Ponce didn't expect to be arguing with a dozen machete-wielding men just weeks after taking a job as a nutritionist with the World Food Programme in Guatemala. But all in all, it wasn't a bad experience, she says.

GUATEMALA CITY -- Just after starting to work for WFP in Guatemala, back in 2006, Silvia Ponce was taking part in a food security survey in the west of the country. She and her three colleagues were going about their work, when they found themselves surrounded by a dozen machete-wielding men who were angrily demanding that she pay a “tax” for being in the town.

“You realise in these situations that working for the UN does not give you any protection. You are still vulnerable,” Ponce says, recalling how in the end, by staying calm and being firm, she persuaded the men to accept a much lower sum than they had asked.

"Strong bond"

“It was a dangerous situation. Anything could have happened. But it’s times like this that help you grow and create a strong bond between team members”.

The sense of being part of a committed team is something that Ponce, a 47-year-old specialist in micronutrients, treasures about working for WFP – that and the feeling that she is using her skills  to help her country confront the chronic malnutrition that afflicts it. 

She talks sadly about the “hidden hunger” of micronutrient deficiencies that mean children do not grow properly and their mental development is also impaired, meaning that whole generations are lost.

Development held back

As a Guatamalan citizen who has lived most of her life in the country, she feels that her nation's development and growth is being held back by malnutrition. Before joining WFP four years ago, she worked on private-sector projects that aimed to combat the problem.

A big part of her job now involves working with the government to define programmes that will help boost the nutritional value of the food eaten by poor people. "I’m in the office a lot and sometimes it’s hard but I know it’s worth it. One of my best experiences has been seeing our micronutrient powders, or ‘Sprinkles’, taken seriously by the government as an approach."

When out in the field, Ponce takes every opportunity to talk to kids so that she can gauge how well nourished they are. “You can tell by looking at their hair and nails whether they have deficiencies. Sometimes you see really sad things but that just makes me keener to do my job so I can help at least one more kid grow up healthier.”