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QUILLOAC, Cañar, Ecuador — The mountain valleys are greener now than they were in the hacienda days. The people walk, drive, ride, and dance with more hope and joy. Crops come in, businesses grow, and new construction is everywhere. The community is connected electronically to every part of the world. Education is universal in Spanish and in Kichwa, and many people are fluent in English. Things are looking up. But the people of the Kañari community in Southern Ecuador know they have a long way to go. They also see what’s lacking. They still seek environmental equilibrium.
The Kañari people look at their
children and watch them grow. For each child to reach maximum physical and
intellectual potential, they know that good health is essential. Good
nutrition, good diets, good habits that last a lifetime must be formed early. Many
forces, influences, and pressures work against this.
A well-nourished child learns better,
thinks better, interacts with others better. And good nourishment comes from
healthy soil, comes from fresh air and sunlight, comes from the nutritious
grains, tubers, and vegetables that have fed the Kañari people for thousands of
years. A well-nourished child knows the joys of a communal meal that includes
quinua, potatoes, locally grown vegetables that he or she can identify by name
and feel and smell. These children engage in loud laughter and spirited play.
These children are the hope for the Kañari future.
There is malnutrition at varying levels
and to varying degrees among the children. It is recorded, but the statistics
are not up to date or complete. There are diseases related to malnutrition that
the school nurses are well aware of. These diseases slow the children down.
There are also cases of lack of energy, of children not learning to their
potential, and of delayed development. Can these be corrected by better
Unlike the United States, the nation of
Ecuador provides adequate breakfasts and lunches to all children without regard
to economic status of the family. To do otherwise would be totally absurd to
the people of Ecuador. But, the meals provided by the national food service
have been shown to be inadequate, unhealthy, and unappetizing. I contacted an
Ecuadorean nutrition researcher who demonstrated this, Irene Torres, and
invited her to look at the alternative developed in the Kañari territory by the
Kañari people. We’re just getting started.
The alternative meal program was launched about 20 years ago. La Asociación de Productores de Semillas y Alimentos Nutricionales Andinos Mushuk Yuyay (The Association of Producers of Seeds and Nutritious Andean Foods Mushuk Yuyay) came up with the idea and began to implement it on a very limited scale. It has been plodding along, little by little, ever since. They call it Niños Saludables y Futuro Saludable. In English I called it Healthy Children, Healthy Future. It needed a Kichwa name – Yuyaysapa wawakuna alli kawsay.
Depending on resources available, the
intervention takes a variety of forms. If the school has a demonstration plot,
the children plant the nutritious traditional crops under the direction of the
Mushuk Yuyay agronomist and learn about the food values from the Mushuk Yuyay
nutritionist. School nurses record the children’s growth and wellbeing
throughout the program. With their teachers, the children learn the science of
plant growth and development. Children then watch the plants mature and become
ready for harvest. They take the foods from field to plate with the direction
of teachers, nutritionists, and parents. Children cook, present, and taste the
foods, and then evaluate the whole process. Through the reporting stage,
children practice writing and speaking skills. Children appear on public media
and at festivals where they explain what they have done and advocate healthy
diets to the public.
There are many programs throughout the
world involving school gardens that include children in the work and supply
healthy and fresh foods to the schools. They take a wide variety of forms and
accomplish many goals. What sets Healthy Children, Healthy Future apart are
three main aspects of the project. One, it is community-sponsored and
community-driven. Two, it addresses a wide variety of issues facing people. And
three, it is aimed at building a better future for the community. It can be
argued that other programs address some of these issues, but I do not know of
one that combines all of these into its goals.
The Kañari community recognized the
need for healthy and active learners. They struggled to establish schools in
the first place at the time of the agrarian reform in the 1960s and 70s. Now
they need students who can benefit maximally from the educational experience.
They recognized that local farm production was diminishing due to emigration of
much of the labor force. Fields were turning to pastures. Men who had emigrated
had found jobs and were sending home cash. Caretakers, be they mothers or
grandparents, didn’t have time or resources to prepare complicated traditional
meals of Andean grains and tubers that they didn’t harvest from the fields
beside their houses. Inexpensive and easy-to-prepare foods were available from
the stores down the street. Besides, the children learned from their
televisions and from their friends to ask for these commercial foods by name.
They want to grow up eating what the modern children eat. Grandparents won’t
say no. Even mothers get worn down. Smiles brighten the faces of children, even
though their health and school performance are suffering.
The Kañari community designed and
implemented the intervention to address this issue. The government didn’t see
the need. They had a contract with a company to supply food. Outside entities
had no interest in supporting an unproven idea.
The second aspect that sets this program
apart is that it is designed to solve the very problems in all of their
manifestations that made the program necessary in the first place. It is easy
to say that children should eat fresh foods grown locally. That is true. But
why isn’t this food consumed already? We need to strengthen local crop
production. Heathy Children, Healthy Future not only produces its own food, but
it creates a demand to be supplemented by food grown on local farms. The
program provides a small market. This market will continue if children develop
a taste for local foods and learn to ask for them by name. Increased markets
will, slowly, encourage increased planting, converting pastures into fields
again. Crops produced using agroecological methods prevent carbon from leaving
soils as well as pulling excess carbon from the atmosphere. Mushuk Yuyay is
removing carbon from the air, one molecule at a time, mitigating climate
We have to start somewhere. Increased
farming production increases availability of farm products in the markets.
Increased production and marketability raises incomes and, in a small way at
first, lessens the need for emigration. And, of course, the program produces
The third aspect of this initiative is
that it strongly addresses the future. The children are the hope of the
community to continue to exist and thrive as it has for thousands of years here
in the high mountains two degrees south of the equator. In order for the
children to guarantee a future for the community they must grow healthy bodies
and minds, be prepared for maximum cognitive development in the school,
participate in the culture and traditions of the community, and, most of all,
be in the community as adults to raise another generation and be the next elders.
Good students, strong and healthy children, are valued community members.
Participation in the learning and the activities of Healthy Children, Healthy
Future insures that they internalize the values of eating from the place where
they live, the home of their ancestors. As the children learn to value local
agriculture, they find a place to make their futures within the homeland.
Farming and related industries are strengthened so that there will be
Will this program have a lasting
impact? We know from the enthusiastic participation and from the reports the
children have given that the program is effective in getting them to eat well
and feel good about it. That, alone, makes it worthwhile. Now we need to follow
up with the same children to see if they continue to choose healthy diets. We
need to observe whether their health continues to be improved. And, we need to
monitor within the community to see whether they continue to encourage other
children to ask for nutritious foods at mealtime. We need to evaluate within
the community how to improve, expand, or intensify the program. The Kañari
people invented the program and they are implementing it, as well as modifying
it, to resolve issues as they see them. They will next evaluate with community
and professional input to decide the next move.
A Healthy Future is the goal. A plan is
in place to make that possible. Right now the program depends on sparse
contributions from local and national government entities, one NGO that is no
longer in existence, but, mostly, from returned Peace Corps Volunteers who see
the value of a Healthy Future. Individuals have contributed, the Boston Area
Returned Peace Corps Volunteer group, the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of
New Jersey, and Friends of Ecuador. Stu Moskowitz, a Returned Volunteer, is the
one who convinced me to work with the Returned PCV community. I didn’t know
For future financing, Mushuk Yuyay is
developing a funding source of its own. The group is producing amaranth snacks
for sale locally, and beginning to collect money. These snacks also provide a
healthy alternative for local children in school and out. A local women’s
farming association is using seed sent as gifts from Guatemalan and Mexican
farmers to diversify the amaranth varieties. Individual contributors and
Friends of Ecuador helped the nutritionist, Lucinda Duy, to attend El Primer
Congreso Mundial del Amaranto (The First World Amaranth Conference) in Puebla,
Mexico, to learn more about growing, processing and marketing amaranth. Now the
association is searching for ways to purchase equipment to process the crops
much more efficiently. Lucinda also made a presentation about Healthy Children,
Healthy Future while she was attending the Congreso.
Mushuk Yuyay is using its new
processing center inaugurated last year to produce and package the snacks.
Their newly earned Certificate of Health from the Ecuadorian Department of
Health makes it possible for them to supply the snacks to the children.
Just last month Mushuk Yuyay welcomed a
new collaborator, Isabel Rodrigues, who is helping to develop new quinua
products that can be marketed to promote more healthy eating. Sales of these
products will also be used for Healthy Children, Healthy Future as well as to
promote more quinua cultivation. Kevin Murphy of Washington State University
brought in new lines of quinua for more trials, and, at the same time, brought
Isabel Rodrigues along to introduce her. The collaboration has been dynamic.
Without a doubt, Healthy Children,
Healthy Future will grow as resources become available. Communities throughout
the area are asking for the program in their schools. There is never a problem
with the intervention being welcomed into the schools. The local officials are
enthusiastic supporters and the teachers are welcoming collaborators because of
the demonstrated effectiveness of the program. We just need two things:
researchers in the area of nutrition to back up our success story with hard
data, and money. Of course, money is needed for pots, pans, fuel, salaries,
seed, fertilizers, instructional materials, and extra food that cannot be grown
in the school plots. We have detailed budgets. The money is invested back into
the community economy, and everyone benefits.
Nutrition education is one way that the
Kañari people can put their children into a better world than the one they
inherited. Not only will the world be moving toward better balance, the
children will be prepared to continue and further that movement. The generation
before inherited a degenerated environment; they tried to sustain what they had
without losing ground. Then the present generation worked to restore the land
and the ecosystems to a functioning world where Pachamama can seek balance. Now
it is for the children being brought up in a healthy environment and learning
to build on the successes of the current adults, to discover the way to
establish a regenerative environment. Then, the Earth can heal and give each
succeeding generation a better place to live.
Healthy Children, Healthy Future: two essential ingredients that depend on each other for the Kañari community to thrive.
Alan Adams is a former Peace Corps Volunteer currently collaborating as a volunteer consultant for Mushuk Yuyay, a community development organization in the Ecuatorian Andes.