School Lunches Improve Learning for Mayan Children

 
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It's lunchtime!

In Guatemala, 51% of the population resides in areas where food insecurity and malnourishment rates are among the highest in the world. One such area is the Santiago Atitlán municipality, where people’s livelihoods often hinge on a single annual coffee harvest and there are few alternative options for generating income. Guatemala-based livelihood studies show that when savings begin to run out or food prices rise internationally, the first household items to go are fruits and vegetables. 

Due to lack of government support, NGOs often provide an important safety net in ensuring that students in rural communities have daily access to at least one balanced meal.

For us at Pueblo a Pueblo, this effort takes the form of our School Nutrition Project, which in 2013 provided daily nutritious lunches to 754 students in four elementary schools in Santiago. This cornerstone meal improves core cognitive functions and increases school attendance, as well as provides students with the nutrients they need to stay healthy and active.

Manuel Gonzalez, a teacher at Panabaj Elemetary School, affirms the value of the lunches, noting that “since we started the lunch project children are coming more frequently and paying more attention in school.”

But while these lunches are an essential ingredient in boosting educational performance and keeping the classroom full, safety nets only address short-term need. That’s why we aim to complement the School Nutrition Project with our Organic School Garden Project, which teaches students how easy it is to grow produce at home and incorporate nutrients into their diets.

Just in 2013 there were 169 days in which school communities consumed vegetables, fruit, and herbs produced right in their organic garden. Now, in 2014, we’re looking forward to introducing our School Nutrition Project to 80 more students in Tololyá elementary school, where over the past year students and teachers have cultivated a healthy garden filled with everything from lettuce, tomatoes, and onions to bananas, papaya, and chipilín. We’re excited to be a part of such a successful project and we’ll be sure to keep you all informed on our progress! 

A student and teacher help clean the garden
A student and teacher help clean the garden
Everybody helps out, no matter how small
Everybody helps out, no matter how small

This past month Pueblo a Pueblo launched its second annual summer vacation Garden Camp.  By the end of December, more than 100 students in four partner schools will have explored the wonders of organic gardening and learned about issues like biodiversity, organic versus inorganic waste, the effect of chemicals on the environment, and the identification of common plants.

To keep campers engaged with the issues, our team has put together lots of interactive, hands-on activities, including painting, building scarecrows, and creating team posters and songs that the campers can present each day. “In contrast to conventional teaching practices in Guatemala, experiential learning lets students be creative and independent, which gives them a better grasp of the topics at hand,” says Tina, our school health and nutrition project manager.

And this year there’s an added surprise: cooking classes! We’ve partnered with Guatemala’s department of agriculture to lead sessions on how to make healthy recipes with ingredients that are easily affordable for local families — ingredients you can grow in an organic garden! A government-sponsored educator joins each school for three days, helping different teams of campers prepare nutritious lunches for the whole camp. As a result, children learn not only the importance of nutritionally beneficial food, but also artistry and creativity that can so easily be incorporated into cooking.  

Imagine preparing dishes like The Boat Adventurer — a baked güisquil hull filled with carrots, radishes, and green beans, with a triangle piece of tortilla for the sail – or the Fun Family of Chard, a compilation of delicious carrot and chili mashed potato bodies with smiling potato and carrot faces, sleeping under a blanket of cooked chard.  “We’re especially excited about these classes because they’re breaking down the strong gender barriers that you often see in Santiago,” says Monika, our Organic School Gardens project intern. “In the morning, boys were saying they didn’t want to participate because cooking is for girls, but by afternoon they were chopping, cooking, and really enjoying themselves.”

To share all the amazing things the children have been learning and creating over the past few weeks, we’ve invited parents to the last day of camp. We hope this will give campers the chance to pass on to their entire families the important lessons they’ve learned and delicious recipes they’ve tried at this year’s Garden Camp.

Two years ago we expanded our School Nutrition project to a primary school in Chacayá, a nearby community that struggles with high rates of malnutrition and food insecurity. We could do this only thanks to your support. Since it began in 2006, the project has provided daily, hot lunches to hundreds of students in Santiago Atitlán, and we hoped that our support would serve as a starting point for a healthier community in Chacayá.

We soon began to see the unhealthy cooking conditions commonly found in rural communities appearing in the Chacayá school kitchen. Mothers who took turns cooking for students had to use inefficient wood-stoves in cramped spaces with poor ventilation. To make matters worse, they often brought their pre-school children into the kitchen to keep an eye on them. It was clear that mothers and children were being exposed to unhealthy amounts of smoke, risking serious respiratory illnesses.

But here’s the good news! Early this year, once we received enough support from donors like you, we were able to improve the efficiency and design of the cooking stove. To help us, a group of Guatemalan soon-to-be graduates from a local high school donated matching funds to renovate the school kitchen! 

Mothers, children, and teachers expect to have a fully renovated kitchen in just a few days! New stoves will produce less smoke and use smaller quantities of firewood. Mothers will have access to more space. And the air quality in the kitchen will be greatly improved.  

We want to take this opportunity to extend our sincere thanks for everything you do. Your contributions have produced a permanent increase in quality of life for mothers and students in Chacayá and enabled this little community to overcome a big hurdle in its path towards food security and improved health.  

Over the past months your donations have allowed us at Pueblo a Pueblo to install Organic School Garden projects in two new partner elementary schools: Totolyá and Nueva Providencia.

Before we arrived the Ministry of Education provided both schools with small amount of “school snack” funding. Each day children received a half-cup of ‘Atol,’ a warm, corn based drink that helped to keep their hunger at bay but lacked core nutrients and vitamins. Moreover, funding from the Ministry was inconsistent and often failed to feed all the students. Since children need vegetables, meats, and grains to get a sufficient amount of daily energy, the simple provision of Atol wasn’t enough. Many dropped out before the sixth grade.

Studies show that having access to daily, nutritious foods helps students to focus, resist illnesses, and remain motivated in school. Because of you we already provide daily, hot lunches to four partner schools in the Santiago Atitlán region. Fruits and vegetables used in the lunches are grown in our organic school gardens – the same as those we just installed in Totolyá and Nueva Providencia. In addition to providing lunches, the gardens teach students about healthy eating habits and sustainable agriculture, key concepts in a region continually threatened by food insecurity. With your support, these gardens will continue to evolve into nutritious lunches and an invaluable educational resource for students in Totolyá and Nueva Providencia. Thank you for making this possible.  

Wow! Here at Pueblo a Pueblo we are impressed with the newest statistics; we are now reaching 760 primary school-aged children through our School Nutrition Project! This means that each weekday every child who attends our four partner schools receives a warm and healthy meal.

The Food Security Program improves both the short- and long-term food insecurity that our partner communities face through two complementing projects: the Organic School Garden project and the School Nutrition project.  The same children who are receiving daily nutritious meals also attend fun classes in the school gardens that teach them how to care for and cultivate organic products that are incorporated into their school lunches.

This year, the directors at our partner schools paid special attention to the nutritional content of the school lunch menus so that children are not only learning about dietary diversity, but also making sure that they are consuming nutritionally balanced meals.  One of the children’s favorite new lunches is the hearty beef soup in which our lunch cooks’ incorporate fresh vegetables from the garden to add vitamins and minerals that children’s growing bodies need.

We are very grateful for our supporters through Global Giving who make it possible for us to continue providing these delicious, hot lunches to our partner schools here in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala. We are also very excited to be reaching so many children, and are looking forward to continue supporting even more of them through our School Nutrition Project in the months and years to come.

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Organization

Project Leader

Rosemary Trent

Executive Director
Washington, DC Guatemala

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