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Urban Gardening Benefits Pocketbooks and Health in Guatemala

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Mar 26 2012 (IPS) - “It benefits both our finances and our health, because the vegetables help prevent illness while they nourish our children,” says Lesbia Huertas, standing in the middle of her yard filled with containers sprouting vegetables in Palencia, 28 km northeast of the Guatemalan capital.

“I grow radishes, beets, parsley, leeks, carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers…this way I save around 15 quetzals (two dollars) a week on vegetables,” she says proudly.

As she waters the plants in her recycled plastic containers, Huertas explains to IPS that here in the front yard of her modest home she has planted 16 kinds of vegetables, which she harvests every day when she prepares the meals for her husband and two children.

For irrigation and household use, she has a 4,000-litre tank for harvesting rainwater, which she has learned to disinfect to prevent diseases.

Huertas is one of 562 women participating in a programme aimed at the supply and use of good quality water in urban and peri-urban agriculture to improve food and nutritional security, in the small towns of Chinautla and Palencia on the outskirts of Guatemala City.

The project has been run since June 2010 by the agriculture ministry with support from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID).

In Latin America, the initiative is also being carried out in Ecuador, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

According to FAO, one billion people now suffer chronic hunger worldwide. And by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity.

Against this backdrop, protecting water and food security is crucial.

“What we are doing is training low-income people so they can plant family gardens in areas ranging from 12 to 15 square metres,” says Elder Berduo, with FAO Guatemala.

“Using a manual, we explain to them the basics of nutrition, which elements different foods contain and why they are nutritious, what each vegetable offers. And then we show them how to plant and care for a garden,” he explains to IPS.

Besides training, the project provides inputs like seeds, organic compost, and rainwater collection and storage tanks.

According to Berduo, the initial goal of the project is for the families to produce vegetables for their own consumption, while the second stage will focus on growing a surplus, which the families can sell to boost their incomes.

The results speak for themselves. “Everything I know I learned in the training, because I had never planted a garden before. All I grew before were mint and cilantro,” says Olga Foronda, who now grows 13 kinds of vegetables in cut-off soft drink bottles, trays, old pots and pans and other improvised containers.

“This benefits me in many ways, because the kids need to eat many different kinds of vegetables, and growing them at home means they’re healthier because we don’t use chemicals,” Foronda adds, chatting with IPS in her yard, in the middle of artichoke, carrot, onion and spinach plants.

The success of her garden has awakened the curiosity of neighbour women, who often stop by and ask her how to grow vegetables.

“They always come and ask me what they would need in order to do this,” says Foronda, who has learned how to garden, make compost and use water efficiently, while learning about the nutrients and benefits offered by each kind of vegetable.

This initiative is just one of a variety of efforts to fight hunger in Guatemala, where one out of two children are chronically malnourished – the highest rate in Latin America, according to UNICEF, the U.N. children’s fund.

Beatriz Juárez, the project’s nutritionist, tells IPS that before the families involved in the project began to plant their gardens, their nutritional levels were measured, and 33 percent of the project’s beneficiaries were found to suffer from chronic malnutrition.

“They used to eat perulero and güisquil squash, and oranges, which were the only things they grew. Also, they have limited access to markets, where at any rate there is only a narrow variety of food available,” the nutritionist said.

The project has focused on production of red vegetables, like tomatoes, which contain lycopene, a carotenoid and antioxidant that may lower the risk of cancer; leafy greens, which are rich in glucosinolates, which also protect against cancer; and white vegetables like onions, which have powerful antioxidants.

“The more varied our diet, the better we can avoid cancer and chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension and obesity,” said Juárez. “And we can do that by eating more fruits and vegetables.

“In late April, we’ll carry out an evaluation of how people are eating, to gauge the impact of the project on the families, who so far have 531 gardens, and to assess the benefits for their health,” she said.

According to FAO, the project will end in November, and the goal is to have 800 urban gardens up and running by that time.

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