School Lunches Improve Learning for Mayan Children

 
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Student in La Cumbre showing off her plant
Student in La Cumbre showing off her plant

With the start of the Guatemalan school year in January came three exciting changes to our Organic School Gardens and Nutrition project.

One of the most exciting changes was the transition of leadership in the organic gardens at the La Cumbre and Chacaya Elementary Schools, as part of the 4th phase of their participation in our project.

In each school, committees composed of local educators, parents, and student representatives are now managing all aspects of the school gardens. Our project technicians are still available to provide assistance when necessary, but the committees are ultimately responsible for maintaining the garden and for ensuring that nutrition education continues for their elementary-aged students.  

We’re extremely proud to see our first project partners begin this new chapter in their organic school gardens and we’re looking forward to seeing how the gardens change and grow under their leadership!

As La Cumbre and Chacaya begin phasing out of the program, Nueva Vida is starting to phase in. Nueva Vida is a very rural community with an elementary school serving 277 students. In December we launched a collaboration with the Nueva Vida Elementary School to implement an organic school garden. With the help of local teachers and parents, we have already cleared the land and built the foundation for the garden. Soon we will start planting and in May, our project technicians will begin teaching students about the fruits, vegetables and herbs that will be growing in their garden.

Last but not least, in our November report, we told you that we were starting to serve breakfast in three of our partner communities. Due to the immediate change we saw in students’ behavior, we decided to implement breakfast, instead of lunch, in all of our partner school and have already seen the positive effect this change has had on students’ attention and participation in morning classes!     

We are very excited about the 2015 school year because we know that the knowledge and experience students gain while working in their organic school gardens and through their nutrition classes will change the common narrative of long-term food insecurity and malnutrition in rural Guatemala. By focusing today on tomorrow’s leaders, we are ensuring a healthier future for indigenous Guatemalan communities.

Teachers from Chacaya having fun in the garden
Teachers from Chacaya having fun in the garden
Students working in the Chacaya garden
Students working in the Chacaya garden
Our garden technician working with students
Our garden technician working with students

Since 2011, Elder Archila has been an educator for Pueblo a Pueblo’s Organic School Gardens project, a sister-project of School Lunches. A normal workday for our garden educators consists of teaching lessons on organic agriculture and the importance of a well-balanced diet to primary school-aged children in multiple public elementary schools. As our local staff come from traditional Mayan families themselves, one of the unique skills Elder brings to his work is educating schoolchildren on traditional Mayan agricultural practices. Elder loves his job and enjoys positively contributing to children’s education by sharing his passion for organic gardening. 

From his perspective, many indigenous, coffee-farming communities lack proper nutrition as well as education on healthy eating habits.

Though this is the reality, Elder has seen many positive changes in the past four years. For instance, students who have participated in this project eat more fruit now than they did before. They also gained interest and knowledge on organic agriculture, planting techniques, and the benefits of growing and eating diverse foods. With each additional year, Elder sees that the students get more and more excited when planting season begins and they take more pride in their annual harvest.

In the schools, Elder works alongside many teachers to make these classes possible. While the vast majority of teachers are supportive and encouraging, he mentioned that there are a few who do not see the importance of organic gardens in their schools. Elder is looking forward to another year of teaching organic gardening to local students, but more importantly, he hopes to gain deeper support and understanding from his partners.

A student in Tzanchaj II enjoying her breakfast
A student in Tzanchaj II enjoying her breakfast

If you’re a typical student in the highlands of Guatemala, it’s normal to walk to school hungry in the mornings. Given what most parents make as day laborers on coffee farms, the money for three full meals a day just isn’t there. For this reason, Pueblo a Pueblo’s School Nutrition project shifted this year to serve breakfast instead of lunch at three out of the five schools where we provide school meals; meaning that over 800 students will get breakfast every day they are in school.

The impact has been immediate. Students are happier and teachers have noticed an improvement in student concentration and attendance!

Our breakfast program follows the same format as the school lunch program and in addition to the basic ingredients purchased through your donations, organic school gardens provide supplementary fruits and vegetables that are incorporated into the meals.

The schools contribute their share by providing firewood for the stoves as well as the kitchenware needed to prepare the large quantities of food. When possible, the school provides a modest wage for a cook. Otherwise the school collaborates with local mothers who volunteer to prepare the meals as early as 5am to make sure breakfast is ready by 10am. Their dedication is impressive!

We look forward to serving breakfast in all five schools that we work with in 2015. We also plan to provide more hands-on training for school cooks and to improve the nutritional content of school meals. Stay tuned for more updates as events unfold!

A mother at Tanchaj II takes a break after cooking
A mother at Tanchaj II takes a break after cooking
Students work up an appetite in the garden
Students work up an appetite in the garden
The beginnings of the garden
The beginnings of the garden

This month our School Health and Nutrition Program launched its newest organic school garden at an elementary school in San Andres, a community just outside of San Lucas.

Among the wide range of activities carried out over the past two weeks to prepare the project’s foundation, our staff has held a training for teachers on how to develop and maintain school gardens; introductory classes for students on the basics of agriculture; and the first round of planting to ensure that the garden begins producing healthy, locally available fruits and vegetables as soon as possible.

“It’s exciting for the school community because word about the benefits of our project has traveled across San Lucas, where we have now implemented four different organic school gardens over the past two years,” says Ana Cabrera, the project manager and most recent addition to our in-field staff. “And it’s exciting for us, because we’re seeing tangible results in our current partner communities driving interest and engagement in others.”

With this new adventure just beginning, it’s strange to imagine that this broad plot of land will soon transform into a thriving, productive school garden. But if our past experiences in San Lucas schools are any indication, we have no doubt that the San Andres community will soon rise to the challenge and take full advantage of the benefits the organic school garden project has to offer. 

A rainwater collection well at the garden
A rainwater collection well at the garden's base
Garden class in one of our other partner schools
Garden class in one of our other partner schools

School children benefit enormously from the careful selection and preparation of nutritious foods. Full stomachs and healthy bodies allow them to build relationships with their peers; develop socially; and concentrate and succeed in the classroom.

That’s why Pueblo a Pueblo has been working since 2013 to start an organic school garden at the Pacoc Elementary School, located just on the outskirts of the San Lucas Toliman Municipality.

As in many other rural, coffee-growing communities, children in Pacoc suffer from reduced growth rates (stunting) and parents often acknowledge a reliance on staple grains like corn and rice, which fill stomachs but lack nutritional value. As such, the community was an ideal candidate for our school-based programming, which seeks to provide children with the comprehensive support they need to reach and graduate the sixth grade.

Since the beginning of the year in Pacoc, excitement for the garden has been palpable. Students swarm to the garden between classes to water and care for the crops and teachers and parents have assumed an active role in garden maintenance through weekend cleanings, coordination committees, and trainings with Pueblo a Pueblo staff. And, just as in our other partner schools, all harvests are used to prepare healthy snacks and lunches for students at the school.

We’re excited to see the momentum build over the rest of the year. Thanks for all you do and we’ll be in touch soon with more updates! 

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Organization

Project Leader

Rosemary Trent

Executive Director
Washington, DC Guatemala

Where is this project located?