Venezuela has a growing crisis of malnourished kids : Goats and Soda Many are small for their age — a sign of a growing crisis of malnutrition. Government mismanagement is to blame, say political analysts. And there could be lifelong impacts for these children.

Why the kids of Venezuela aren't getting enough to eat

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Venezuela controls the world's largest proven oil reserves, so it should be a wealthy country. Instead, years of economic mismanagement have brought massive poverty and food shortages. Venezuela now faces a catastrophe of its own making - widespread malnutrition among the country's children. Reporter John Otis has more.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: This is a soup kitchen in a hillside slum overlooking Caracas. Cooks are preparing stewed pork, rice and salad for about 50 children.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: As the kids wait for their meals, volunteers record their height and weight and use a measuring tape to check the circumference of their arms.

EILEEN CABELLO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Look how thin her arm is," says Eileen Cabello, the mother of one little girl being measured. She's nearly 5, but lacks the height and weight of a 5-year-old. In fact, most kids here are small for their ages, reflecting a growing crisis across Venezuela. In a survey last year, the development group Caritas found that 42% of children in the country's poorest neighborhoods suffered from stunting or wasting. That means they're too short or underweight for their ages. It's a problem that must be dealt with immediately, says Susana Rico, who directs the U.N. World Food Program in Venezuela.

SUSANA RICO: If you miss good nutrition up to age 6, most likely you will not develop your full physical and cognitive potential.

OTIS: The rising number of malnourished kids, Rico says, spells deep trouble for Venezuela's future.

RICO: If you did not grow up to be a strong and healthy as you were genetically planned to be, you most likely would not be able to produce as much. The same thing goes for your intellectual growth. So the effects, the economic effects are felt in 15 years, 20 years when these children enter the workforce.

OTIS: In many cases, kids fill up on cheaper foods like bread and cereal because their parents can't afford meat and dairy products, says pediatrician Lisber Guerra, who treats malnourished kids in Caracas.

LISBER GUERRA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: That appears to be the case with this rail-thin boy Dr. Guerra is examining.

GUERRA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: A 7-year-old she weigh between 46 and 51 pounds, she says, but he weighs about 39 pounds.

GUERRA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Dr. Guerra urges the boy's grandmother and guardian to provide him with more milk and other wholesome foods. Venezuela's food crisis was largely brought on by its authoritarian socialist government. Price controls and the seizure of farms and factories led to food shortages. Hyperinflation made it harder to buy groceries. Most Venezuelans now receive state food handouts, but the country's worst economic crisis in history has forced the government to slash these programs. President Nicolas Maduro was initially reluctant to admit there was a problem and to seek outside help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: Gracias.

OTIS: But at this ceremony in April, Maduro signed an agreement with the U.N. to hand out meals to 1.5 million pre-school children in the poorest areas of Venezuela. In addition, private charities are stepping up.

(CROSSTALK)

OTIS: At the soup kitchen in the Caracas slum, one of hundreds around the country run by the charity Alimenta la Solidaridad, I meet Minivette Rondon. She's here with her 6-year-old twin daughters.

MINIVETTE RONDON: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: She tears up as she recounts sending her girls to bed without supper two or three times per week.

RONDON: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: They were getting thin, says Rondon, an unemployed single mom, and, I mean, really thin.

RONDON: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But for the past two weeks, they've been eating lunch at the soup kitchen. And now Rondon says her twins are putting on weight.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Caracas.

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