Improving Childrens Health with Veggies

High in the Peruvian Andes, poor school children learn how to grow and cook healthy, organic veggies. An example for the world?

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“We’re almost there” Simone promises. We look at each other in disbelief. Do people live here? For over two hours we have been driving uphill in the Andes Mountains. Our current altitude is around 4,000 metres above sea level and the landscape is rocky and bare. The dirt road replaced the asphalt about an hour ago and keeps getting bumpier. At last, we cross a pass and descend to a valley in which we can discern some vegetation. Not much later, Simone’s 4×4 comes to a halt next to a rectangular building. It’s the local school. “Welcome to Incacancha”, Simone says with a smile.

Surviving in the Andes

While our boat is in Chile we travel through South America over land. Today we visit this remote Peruvian hamlet of less than 20 houses with Simone van Heemskerk. The Dutchwoman set up a foundation – Por Eso! – 12 years ago to help those who live in mountain villages, in particular the children. 

Simone tells us that the inhabitants of Incacancha and similar places are direct descendants of the Incas. Expelled from the fertile valley by the Spanish conquerors some six generations ago, they still speak Quechua. “The communities we work with all live above 3,700 meters, where the climate is harsh. The people here are isolated from the rest of Peru and even more difficult to reach during the rainy season. They have hardly any access to clean drinking water, good education or healthcare”, Simone explains. “As a result, they live in extreme poverty.”

Fighting Inequality

“Peru is a country with large differences between rich and poor. While the economy is growing, poverty in these remote areas does not diminish significantly. Yet for many reasons moving down to the valley is not an option for the people from the villages up here. They don’t speak Spanish well, have hardly any money and no land of their own. Moreover, they would face discrimination. At the same time, here in the mountains the little fertile soil they have is getting depleted. That’s not only because the population is growing, but also because fresh water is getting scarcer as a result of climate change”, Simone continues. 

She then gets to the reason why we are here. “The potato is the only crop that seems to withstand the harsh conditions. It’s almost all the children eat to still their hunger every day. But their one-sided diet leads to delays in their development and diseases. In this and similar villages, more than 30% of all children under five are chronically malnourished. Six out of ten children suffer from anaemia and have iron deficiency. The Peruvian government has set up aid programs, but they are not very effective. Unfortunately, due to inadequate implementation and corruption, even the government’s well-intended regulations fail to be useful.”

Andes-Grown Vegetables

So how do you improve the health of these Peruvian children, we ask Simone. “To the greenhouse!” she gestures in response. Inside it is a group of seven school children in colourful, traditional clothes. They surround a young man. “That is my colleague Roger. He lives here a few months to teach the children and teachers organic horticulture”, Simone explains. From a few metres away, we observe the children. They listen attentively to Roger and then go about planting and watering vegetables.

With the children we next visit the school kitchen. The teacher stirs in a large pan while the children help with the preparation of their lunch. The children learn not only how to grow healthy vegetables, but also how to prepare them. Por Eso! gives the schools recipes, which the children can also use to teach their parents at home. “Part and parcel of preparing food is hygiene, so we also work with the schools to get the kitchens up to hygienic standards”, Simone adds.

Helping Step-by-Step

But how do you achieve lasting behavioural change and prevent people from remaining dependent on outside help, we ask. “We work according to a step-by-step plan, with milestones. Our first goal is to increase food security and improve diets. That is why we build greenhouses with the villagers and schools. That is, the locals construct the stone building and only when they have completed it, we deliver the materials for the roof. They then prepare the soil, after which we bring seeds and supervise the creation of a vegetable garden. We then train the teachers how to teach organic horticulture. The next step is to improve or build a school kitchen. At each step we check whether the preliminary work has been done properly. We never give anything away just like that”, Simone says.

From School to People’s Homes

But it doesn’t stop there. Simone continues: “Our school activities have a proverbial ripple effect. Once the horticultural and cooking classes have started, which is usually after a year, we take the next step. We visit the families at home and encourage them to improve both kitchen hygiene and nutrition. For example, we can help with the installation of cookers with chimneys, water reservoirs, and irrigation systems. Here, too, our principle applies: the families must always do something themselves before we help or give something to them.

Por Eso! takes its efforts seriously. It follows the guidelines of the World Health Organisation about the principles of living a healthy live (“Vivienda Saludable”). Up here in the Andes, this means, for example, that Simone asks the residents to move the guinea pigs, which they raise to eat on special occasions, out of the kitchen. “It’s more hygienic if they are in a separate room”, Simone explains.

When we are generously invited for lunch in one of the homes close to the school, we see with our own eyes what Por Eso! aims to achieve here. Our hosts still use an open wood fire for cooking, which causes smoke to pollute the indoor air. It may explain why our hosts grill the potatoes outdoors, using hot coals under ground. “The ultimate reward for their successful participation in the project is their own greenhouse at home”, Simone reveals during a tasty potato lunch with veggie pies that are inspired by a recipe learnt at school.

Success and Collaboration

As a foundation, Por Eso! is financially dependent on donations. Partly for this reason it puts efforts into communicating about its projects and their results. Simone proudly explains how well things are going: “We are currently working with vegetable gardens in 17 villages and 28 schools. Since we started in 2007, more than 1,200 families and their school-going children have been eating healthier food and continue to do so. Another important result was achieved when the Ministry of Education agreed to collaborate with us. The Ministry is going to give organic horticultural lessons to all schools in Peru, following the example of Por Eso!” It is a testament of the success of Simone’s programme.

Leading by Example?

We admire Simone’s drive to offer the indigenous peoples of Peru an equal chance for good development, to prevent diseases, and to improve their quality of life. What can her work teach the world? In the bus back to Chile we think about children in other parts of the world. Many children grow up in a prosperous environment, but their diet is not always healthy. Shouldn’t learning to grow and cook your own healthy, organic vegetables be included in every school program? It seems that children and schools in other countries can look to the Andes for inspiration about growing healthy vegetables themselves, too!

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