Her given name is "Miracle," but it merely reflects her mother's wishful thinking.
Miracle Acosta is, in fact, an 18-month-old child of Manila's Tondo slum who weighs only 12 pounds. Her arms are stringy-thin, and she has yet to walk a first step on her delicate legs.
She stares out at life through listless eyes fixed in that glassy stare peculiar to the undernourished. The problem is not complex: she does not get enough to eat. Her diet is a bit of rice and vegetables three times a day and, on grand occasions, a piece of fish.
Her's would be another sad but normal story from the developing world if it were not for one more fact. There is plenty of food in the Philippines, even the sort she needs most. Through some imaginative planning and hard work, this Asian country has become a food exporter in the past decade. It sells abroad rice and sources of vegetable oils most needed in a diet like Miracle's.
The country's food gap has touched off a revealing debate within the government of President Ferdinand Marcos, who has vowed to eliminate malnutrition in the Philippines. The specter of hunger amid plenty is explained by traditional nutritionists as primarily a result of a lack of education -- of mothers not knowing what to buy.
Another school of thought holds that it is simply an economic problem. People do not have enough money to buy the food they need. Prices are kept too high, in part to sustain profitable exports and earn the Philippines much-needed foreign currency.
Dr. Florentine Solon, executive director of the Nutrition Center of the Philippines, sees it as essentially a problem of education. Too many mothers, he says, just do not bother to feed children enough of the right things. "Even in a family where the child is underweight, the mother gives most of the food to the father," he adds.Malnutrition easily could be conquered by some small, easy lessons, he says. "If they would just fry fish in coconut oil, it would be enough."
Viewed from the level where Miracle Acosta lives, however, that formula seems unattainable. For one thing, fish is a rarity no matter what it is cooked in. For another, her family has no coconut oil.
She is part of a two-family household of nine persons who live in a sordid government-owned slum house near the railroad tracks in Tondo, Manila's poorest area. It is a half-hour drive from the city's luxury-hotel district, where a tuna-fish sandwich costs as much as the Acosta household spends on a day's meals for all nine persons.
Her mother, the only fully employed member of the house, earns 10 pesos ($1.20) a day in a dry goods market. A grandmother, age 75, takes in laundry, and a teen-aged girl is a "Metro Manila aide," and cleans up the city's parks. The daily income of all three women is about 30 pesos, and it all goes for food, which means each of the nine is fed on the equivalent of about, 40 cents a day.
It is typical for the neighborhood. For those knowledgeable persons who try to help, the problem is simple -- money.
"The trypical family here has five kids, and I'd guess the average person brings home 10 pesos a day," said Lennie Muyon, a volunteer worker in nutrition. "The problem is mostly money. The prices are going up. They can't get jobs. It's getting worse."
As in most countries, malnutrition affects young children and expectant mothers in the Philippines the most. A sign on a wall of Dr. Solon's center spells out the details: out of 9 million children between six months and six years of age, one-third are either moderately or severely malnourished. aThree-fourths are anemic, and about the same percentage are deficient in Vitamin A.
The impact of government nurtrition programs and the increased availability of rice -- a product of intensive research and cultivation -- raised standards in the 1970s. Toward the end of the 1970s, surveys on the main island of Luzon, where Manila is located, showed a decline in the number of underweight children.
But they also showed a clear relationship between diet and income. When a family's income falls, it has noting to cut back on except food. And, the economists argue, the facts of life in the past two years -- with the country's economy badly shaken by the impact of rising oil prices -- suggest that the diet of poor families may be getting worse instead of better. Despite a respectable overall growth rate in the last decade, the economists say, the average Filipino is probably worse off than the decade began.
Estimates vary, but it is believed that real income declined between 10 and 20 percent during the 1970s. Unemployment is officially listed at only 4.2 percent, but economists say it is much higher if measured by industrial nations' standards.
Despite an overall increase of 6 percent in food consumption during the decade, the Filipino's diet is extremely deficient in vegetable oils, which are readily available, but at prices the poor cannot pay. Large quantities of coconut, ideal for filling that gap, are exported every year. "If it weren't for the exports, Filipios would be swimming in oils," said one expert who asked not to be identified because the issue of exporting foods needed at home is a politically touchy one.
Some in the government are pressing for a subsiy program similar to the American food stamps program, to give poor families a chance to buy foodstuffs at low prices. The issue now is being debated within the government, and a decision is expected soon.