COVID-19 in Guatemala: Malnutrition Grows with the Case Count

Driving on the highway in Guatemala is devastating during the current crisis. As you wade through the numerous Government mandated travel check-points, you’ll be confronted by the more immediate dire human impacts of the crisis. Hundreds of families are lining the highways waving white flags. The international symbol of surrender has become a desperate cry for help in Guatemala, signaling the need for immediate food assistance. Since COVID-19 began, Guatemala’s acute childhood malnutrition rate has tripled. ¹  UNICEF predicts that maternal mortality will double during the crisis. ²  As the caseload grows – reaching 5,586 to date – the Government is issuing even stricter regulations. On May 14th, President Giammattei announced weekly country shut downs, banning all vehicle travel and mandating everyone aside from essential workers stay indoors each weekend. Markets and supermarkets are operating on limited hours. A potential two week total shutdown looms on the horizon. While necessary to control the spread of the virus, these restrictions threaten to push Guatemala’s most vulnerable families deeper into poverty and food crisis. The World Food Programme reports that over a million people could not meet their food needs on a daily basis prior to COVID and this number is expected to grow. ³  Reaching people with better nutrition could not be more urgent.

People wave banderas blancas (white flags) in Guatemala city, indicating the need for immediate food assistance. Photo Credit: Oliver de Ros.


Recognizing the need to reach Guatemala’s poorest farmers during the crisis, Semilla Nueva has launched a COVID-19 emergency response program to provide free seed to communities experiencing food crisis. We began seed distribution efforts in April to ensure we reached families ahead of Guatemala’s main May and June corn planting season. This is a critical window – what families plant in the next few months will determine what their families and the country eat for the next year. As Latin America becomes the new epicenter of the virus, we need to prepare farmers for difficult months ahead. As part of our emergency response, we will distribute over 19,000 pounds of seed to subsistence families. This is enough to produce over 3.8 million pounds of nutritious corn, or 76 million health tortillas! Each family will receive 10 pounds of seed; enough to cover a family’s food for a year.

We are working with farmer cooperatives across Chiquimula, a predominantly Mayan region with high poverty and malnutrition rates, to distribute the seed to vulnerable families. These farmer families traditionally rely on low yielding seeds. Under normal circumstances, they must supplement their harvests by buying additional grain in the market to feed their families. With the economic crisis caused by COVID-19, most of these families won’t be able to afford additional grain. Families will be entirely dependent on what they’re able to grow this season to meet their families nutrition needs for the year.

A woman  in Chiquimula receiving her free corn seed from Semilla Nueva’s COVID-19 emergency seed distribution program. Photo credit: Pedro Martinez.


Our seed’s higher yields give farmers the chance to take control of their families well-being. The seed will provide far more grain than the low yielding seeds these farmers normally use and farmers will be able to produce enough food for their family for the year. All year their families will eat tortillas with more zinc, iron, and protein. Our seed’s higher yields also give farmers a chance to sell extra grain and increase their incomes – a rare opportunity amidst a global pandemic. Subsistence farmers who grow the seed can generate up to $100 USD more annually. This program is transformative in the face of COVID-19. Families who are facing immediate food crisis are empowered to produce their own food and increase their incomes. Semilla Nueva is proud to show up for the farmers being hardest hit by COVID-19.


  1. Ana Lucia Ola. Forbes. 12 May 2020.
  2.  Ana Lucia Ola. Prensa Libre. 15 May 2020.
  3.  Anastasio Maloney. reliefweb. 21 Jan 2020.

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