Yellow Pad

By Icia de Guzman

Christmas, celebrated every Dec. 25, is believed to be the “birthday” of Jesus, born 100% man and 100% God according to the Bible. It is the most celebrated season in the Philippines primarily because of the Catholic faith’s influence, and people’s affinity with the Holy Family.

However, this image of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the angel, and the Three Wise Men is probably the most vivid picture people have of Jesus’ infancy. Many of the narratives we know of Jesus are about his last 1,000 days on earth: his public ministry, discipleship, demonstration of miracles, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven. All of these were compressed in his last three years that form majority of the Gospel.

What about Jesus’ first 1,000 days, from the day he was conceived to his early childhood, the years before he was able to perform miracles and fulfill his mission? What could this period in Jesus’ life teach us?

Let us reflect deeper on Jesus’ first 1,000 days as an infant who was conceived and born and cried for warmth and milk from his mother, Mary.

“While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:6-7)

Luke, a doctor, wrote two full chapters on Jesus’ first 1,000 days with details that embody the critical building blocks of a child’s early development: proper nutrition, good health, and a safe, secure, and nurturing environment that allows learning opportunities.

Health research tells us that the first 1,000 days, from conception to the infant’s first two years, constitute the most critical period of a child’s early development. Also referred to as the “Golden Window of Opportunity,” this first 1,000 days is where human brain grows more rapidly than any other time period of a child’s growth, hence the need for the right nutrients given at the right time. If compromised, malnutrition during this period would have irreversible adverse effects such as stunting and cognitive retardation.

It can be inferred that Jesus, indeed, was nurtured by Mary and his foster father, Joseph, as Luke noted in his chapter.

“Now the Child continued to grow and to become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the favor of God was upon Him.” (Luke 2:40).

It is fascinating to learn how much can be accomplished within 1,000 days as reflected in Jesus’ first 1,000 days! This perspective now allows us to see pregnancy and childcare in a different light. Just imagine how much can be changed if government invests in the first 1,000 days of life of every Filipino child.

For almost three decades, malnutrition has been a critical problem in the Philippines despite reported gains in the country’s economic growth. The 2019 World Bank data noted that one in three children (29%) below five years old are stunted or smaller in height for their age. This ratio placed Philippines among the 10 countries with the highest prevalence of stunting globally and fifth highest prevalence in the East Asia and Pacific Region.

In 2019, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that the economic impact of childhood malnutrition in the Philippines was $4.5 billion, or about 3% of the country’s gross domestic product annually due to health cost as well as the forgone productivity and opportunity cost of the future workforce.

In the 2021 World Bank report titled “Undernutrition in the Philippines: Scale, Scope and Opportunities for Nutrition Policy and Programming,” childhood malnutrition is referred to as the “silent pandemic” which fuels the continued cycle of poverty.

A notable proof of concept that demonstrates a framework for a holistic approach on a nutrition initiative is the Barangay First 1,000 Days (BF1KD), launched in 2017 through Helen Keller International in collaboration with Nutrition International’s (NI) “Right Start Initiative.” BF1KD was a four-year collaborative project piloted in four provinces — Iloilo, Antique, Cebu, and Bohol — with an initial target of engaging 10 municipalities and 200 barangays per pilot province. BF1KD’s overall goal was to improve nutrition outcomes for pregnant women and children zero to 23 months old through strengthened local governance and improved local capacities to facilitate increased coverage and consumption of essential micronutrients. During its implementation, barangays were trained to develop, access, and allocate budget to nutrition-related programs through the Barangay Nutrition Action Plan (BNAP) and were encouraged to hold regular Barangay Nutrition Committee (BNC) meetings for improved monitoring and ensure continuity of the program.

BF1KD is now a local government-led program implemented in 15 out of 18 municipalities in the province of Antique, reaching about 301 out of 590 barangays to date. A critical part of this success is the established local ownership and strong leadership from the provincial government down to the barangay.

Nutrition is a critical building block of nation-building. The government urgently needs to invest in holistic nutrition interventions, especially on the first 1,000 days to help tackle poverty at its core. This surely is just one aspect, but giving a premium to this area of human investment will substantially help in enabling every child to better contribute to the country’s overall productivity moving forward.

Improving nutrition is perhaps society’s best Christmas gift to the Filipino children.

Icia De Guzman is a communications professional working with various international development and non-governmental organizations for development and research initiatives in the Philippines.