How Cuddles Foundation supports the nutritional needs of underprivileged children fighting cancer
Armed with an MBA from the Indian School of Business, Purnota Dutta Bahl was passionate about marketing from the get-go.
In 2010, she took a break from her career to get through a difficult pregnancy and spend time with her newborn daughter.
“After a few months, I wanted to do more. My husband and I used to support children’s treatment at Tata Memorial Hospital,” Purnota tells SocialStory.
This life-altering time led her to establish— a not-for-profit focused on providing food and nutrition to underprivileged children battling cancer in government cancer hospitals.
“I had never before seen so many children with cancer in one place,” Purnota shares, “the visual is very stark.”
At the hospital, she saw a baby in the children’s ward who was around the same age as her child, and both of them had a black daga (thread) tied on the same feet. “That was the dramatic moment where I thought I could have been there with my daughter; it’s just chance,” she says.
Moved by what she saw, Purnota spoke to the social worker about how she could extend support to these children. While they had enough financial resources for treatment, they needed money for nutrition.
The duo did their best to meet their requirements. However, it soon surpassed what they could afford, and they started tapping into their networks to contribute.
“I started really enjoying what I was doing. I was building something from scratch that felt really meaningful,” comments Purnota.
At first, Cuddles Foundation joined hands with Dr Brijesh Arora, who was leading the initiative for nutrition for children with cancer in India. “Then came Unlimited India, who got me on board as an investee as a social entrepreneur,” she adds.
Soon, Cuddles began its pilot project at the Tata Memorial, and as it delivered on its promise, it replicated the same across India.
Dealing with childhood cancer
In a country where 50,000 children are diagnosed with cancer every year, several challenges stand in the way of being cured. Purnota points out that being malnourished during treatment puts them at a greater risk of infection, side effects, and treatment delays.
At present, Cuddles Foundation’s FoodHeals programme bridges the nutrition gap in children with cancer in 35 government and charity hospitals in 20 cities across India.
Over the past year, it provided nutrition counselling to over 6,000 patients.
The FoodHeals programme is customised to each child’s needs. At its partner hospitals, children seeking cancer treatment are screened to assess their nutritional status.
After evaluation, these hospitals create a “nutrition prescription”, which includes the right nutrition therapy and a customised diet plan for the child.
Cuddles Foundation supports the child and the family by providing nutritional supplements, hot meals, and monthly ration bundles. It also monitors the child’s nutritional status and reassesses, if required.
Purnota says families come from all parts of India to cities for cancer treatment, resulting in income disruption for the families already facing financial constraints.
For Cuddles, providing support to the patient’s family is also an important component of the support structure.
The organisation’s work is supported by brand partnerships with companies like Mondelez and Nestle and corporate supporters like Bajaj Finance and ICICI Foundation, who adopt one or more hospitals in the programme.
Swara is among many children supported by the foundation. The five-year-old from Baramati was diagnosed with cancer, and her family moved to Pune for her treatment.
Her father had spent all of his savings on her medical tests and travel. She weighed less than what she was supposed to at her age and consumed only 23 percent of her energy requirements. She also experienced side effects of chemotherapy, including loss of appetite.
After enrolling in the FoodHeals programme, Swara’s family received aid in the form of monthly ration. They were also counselled about improving her diet.
As the COVID-19 led lockdown had just started and getting resources was difficult, Swara’s parents were relieved they did not need to stress about feeding the family.
After a year of regular counselling and nutrition support, Swara has entered the maintenance phase of treatment and is back home in Baramati.
Expanding the impact
Technology is an integral part of the organisation’s interventions.
Cuddle Foundation’s FoodHeals app helps nutritionists to carry out nutritional assessments. This one-of-a-kind app is among the first in the world, says Purnota, “which is built in a developing country for our population.”
Through the app, they hope to train doctors and nurses to administer nutrition in places where providing a nutritionist may be difficult. Currently, it's being used by nutritionists at all partner hospitals.
She points out that one of the challenges the organisation is addressing is the lack of pediatric nutritionists. “We have launched our own school of nutrition called the Cuddles Institue for Clinical Nutrition (CICN),” she explains.
Through this, it aims to train nutritionists, doctors, and nurses in pediatric oncology nutrition. The institute has trained over 100+ nutritionists and collaborated with nearly 250 doctors through its group webinars and sessions conducted in colleges.
As an organisation, Cuddles Foundation hopes to eventually reach 100 percent of children undergoing cancer treatment in hospitals across India.
“We have some very strong partners onboard like HT Parekh Foundation, who are looking to change the way we do nutritional interventions or treat pediatric cancer in India,” Purnota underlines.
She hopes, with the support of more partners, Cuddle Foundation will be able to reach its ambitious aims.
(Name changed to protect privacy.)
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Edited by Suman Singh