The Argentina Independent, in coalition with Magdalena’s Party, WSC Legal and New Wave Marketing, is launching a campaign to support a local charity with communication and fundraising during the course of four months. The NGOs are all registered charities here in Argentina, and are chosen in conjunction with Help Argentina, an umbrella organisation dedicated to helping Argentine foundations get a head start.
The first NGO we will be supporting is Fundación Huerta Niño, a project devoted to the development of community educational gardens in rural schools, in some of the country’s poorest corners, aiming to help the communities feed themselves and educate children in nutrition. The charity currently supports 170 gardens, which benefit 10,000 children in all 23 Argentine provinces. Mariel Matze visited one of the projects and brings the following report.
Today is special: it’s Beetroot Day. Soles en el Camino, a home for kids without one, will be harvesting the eight beets growing in a corner of its garden and celebrating with an explanatory, if rather unusual, root vegetable-themed play.
The cast gets ready in the greenhouse, banishing all audience members to the rest of the garden or the playground. Meanwhile, little Anto, no more than three or four years old, marches up to a group of adults, proudly showing each a fistful of weeds she has picked. When they ask what she plans to do with them, she grins. “Eat them!” Anto may not have yet figured out which greens are salad-worthy, but she absolutely has got the right idea.
Soles en el Camino’s garden is supported by the Huerta Niño Foundation, a non-profit organisation devoted to making community-driven gardens possible in some of the most under-resourced corners of Argentina. Huerta Niño provides funding and enlists technical assistance; local families and schools run everything else, feeding and educating their children themselves. As a Buenos Aires-based orphanage, Soles en el Camino is actually an exception among Huerta Niño’s projects; the vast majority are rural primary schools whose student bodies are disproportionately vulnerable to serious malnutrition and poverty. Currently, a total of 170 gardens benefit 10,000 children throughout all 23 provinces—and scores more are on a waiting list for funding.
The corn is high these days; its gold plumes tower above even the adult volunteers’ heads. Over the summer the pumpkin plants have sprawled, reaching their leafy arms over their bed barriers and out over the grass. The tomatoes, the house’s favourite vegetable, scramble up their trellises. It’s mid-summer by now and although their fruits are still green, they weigh heavy on the vine. Gathered around them in a spectrum of splendid greens are lettuce, cabbage, leeks, eggplant, chard, arugula, parsley, and basil.
The organic gardens grown on elementary school properties are the source of sorely needed lunch ingredients for hungry students. When crops are harvested, they go directly into the school-provided meal program, crucial to staving off looming hunger for many rural children. “All the kids in the school eat lunch in the cafeteria and for many of them, that is their only meal because their parents can’t feed them. So many parents send them to school to eat—solely so that they can eat,” explains Huerta Niño’s Constanza Feldman. “And because of the isolation, the kids who live really far from school have to walk kilometres to get there so that the only sustenance they consume is already spent on the walk to school.”
Without a garden, those meals come solely from government funding that only covers a few cheap staples. The province of Santa Fe, for example, distributes $3.10 per child per day, the equivalent of US$0.62. Feldman says that at most rural elementary schools, a typical morning starts with a piece of plain bread and mate cocido. For lunch, “the schools buy what they can, which are generally basics: rice, noodles, they make guisos, soups, maybe some meat, and bread.” Nutrient-rich items like fresh fruits and vegetables are largely absent.
Without secure, sufficient, and high quality food sources, it can be nearly impossible for children to learn and develop appropriately. A teacher working with a Huerta Niño garden reports that “poor nutrition influences the learning process as well as physical exhaustion, weakness, and a lack of attention; that is how we have older kids who repeat year after year because upon leaving the classroom they forget everything they learned that morning.”
Taken at a national level, Argentina’s childhood malnutrition statistics may not shock at first glance, but when put in terms of a body of children experiencing serious health consequences, the situation is unacceptable. The World Health Organisation uses ‘stunting’, the “result of long-term nutritional deprivation which often results in delayed mental development, poor school performance and reduced intellectual capacity”, to measure the severity of a given country’s childhood malnutrition situation. At 8.2% in 2005, the WHO’s most recent data, Argentina remains within the “low prevalence” category, a rating it had maintained at least since 1994. Likewise for rates of childhood ‘wasting’, a symptom of acute under-nutrition. By 2008, the average depth of hunger, which the World Bank uses to measure the “intensity of food deprivation”, was only 130 kilocalories—the equivalent of a slice of buttered toast. Yet “low” is still far too high. According to UNICEF, in total, 276,000 Argentine children under the age of five experience ‘stunting’; 40,000 reach the point of ‘wasting’.
Furthermore, aggregates at the national level obscure an acute crisis in particular sectors of Argentine society; namely, rural areas. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a United Nations agency dedicated to eliminating rural poverty in developing countries, states that although Argentina is Latin America’s third-largest agricultural producer and second-largest exporter, “the benefits the [agricultural] sector generates do not all seem to revert back to the population.” Though data on rural poverty in Argentina is scarce, officials surveys between 2000 and 2006 consistently put poverty levels in rural areas significantly above that of urban zones.
The play at Soles en el Camino itself is short, designed to explain the idea of a root vegetable harvest with a haircut. The beetroot gets her leafy headband spruced up; the younger carrots are fussy about keeping their trims (of green streamers pinned to orange hats) conservative. It succeeds in drumming up enthusiasm—the home is now buzzing with pre-snack time anticipation. “Za-na-HOOOOOR-ia, re-mo-LAAAAAA-cha,” chants a little boy to himself as we pass by in the hallway. I raise my eyebrows at a staff member in surprise; kids often sing to themselves, but usually not about vegetables.
As for the causes of rural poverty in Argentina, the IFAD points primarily to “the lack of access to productive resources like land, credit, knowledge, and new agrarian technologies” and it adds that “limited training, just as much agrarian as non-agrarian, is a determining factor for poverty in homes headed by women and young people.” Not all of those missing resources are easy to recover, but with small gardens, agricultural skills take root once again in rural communities.
University of Georgia Sociology professor Pablo Lapegna studies this “special paradox”: in a country as abundant as Argentina, why do children go hungry? He points to a combination of factors that account for IFAD’s list of missing resources.
For one, increased trade liberalisation during the 1990s reduced public assistance that used to tie small farmers over in the case of a tough year. As a result, large businesses with the capital essential to weathering price fluctuation fared much better than their small-scale peers, who in turn gradually went out of business.
The rise of genetically modified (GM) crops both added to the pressure crushing small farmers and tempted them to close up shop. GM growers sprayed their fields with chemical pesticides because the plants had been engineered to resist ill effects. Yet such substances drifted all too easily to neighbouring farms, damaging more delicate natural crops and affecting human health. Large-scale GM farms also offered few professional opportunities in return for creating such a competitive climate; their cultivation required less labour overall and demanded a greater proportion of specialised labour. Lastly, GM agriculture’s ability to produce in hostile climates created a surge in demand for land and as such lifted property values for those already considering renting out or selling.
Small farmers and their families turned to the big cities for work. Leaving the land behind and raising children in urban areas meant there was no way to teach the next generation the family trade. “Kids growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, now want to grow their own food, but they didn’t have the chance to grow up in a farm to know how to do those things,” Lapegna describes. “All the knowledge that was passed orally from generation to generation is lost.”
Feldman describes it as a break in a chain of knowledge—one for which Huerta Niño is working to provide a missing link. “It’s a seed of knowledge,” she says. “Whether this garden works or not in the future, [the children] already know how to feed themselves. They know that if they plant a seed, it will bear fruit and then they’ll have a possibility they didn’t even know existed.” Almost all schools supported by Huerta Niño have a teacher devoted entirely to garden education. The other teachers integrate it into their own curricula: pollination lessons in natural sciences classes, essay assignments for language, garden layout problems for geometry. “The kids have a really big connection with the garden because they generally live in a rural setting. So it’s a return to their roots,” says Feldman.
Huerta Niño’s projects are aimed at children, but the project undoubtedly touches the rest of the community as well. Parents and teachers are the ones who clear land, build fences, and set up water collection and irrigation systems. They handle the tasks too difficult for young children and tend the garden when school is out of session. They can count on a local National Agricultural Technology Institute (INTA) agronomic engineer for guidance in the delicate art of organic gardening, and the Huerta Niño Foundation for connections and funding.
But beyond that, these are community-driven projects that often inspire more community development projects. “They’ve given themselves a project in which they have surpassed their own expectations,” explains Feldman. “Now beyond the garden they’d like a henhouse or pigs; it generates more and more ideas for what they can do.” Through one half-hectare garden, communities become more united and empowered to fight for further food sovereignty.
In the kitchen at Soles en el Camino, Marcela, a Huerta Niño volunteer, is busy preparing beetroot and cheese sandwiches. A clot of girls gathers around to watch. “Oh, look how yummy!” exclaims one. “Is it good?” asks another doubtfully, interrupted by, “I love beetroots… I think,” from the girl next to her. “But the only thing is that they stain your clothes,” counsels her friend eruditely.
Marcela keeps slicing even as a trail of kids comes charging in. “Why didn’t you let us know?!” demands an older boy indignantly, suspecting favouritism towards the girls. But he’s immediately distracted by the beetroot leaf headband, which he seizes, crying “I’m the beet now!” and rushes into the bedrooms. Meanwhile, the Huerta Niño volunteers distribute sandwiches, helping the smaller ones balance slippery beet slices on top of the cheese.
The beetroots ultimately got a mixed review. A toddler wordlessly offers the adults her sandwich. “Did you like it?” She shakes her head shyly: no. Another little girl hops past, the ruffled hem of her dress bouncing around her legs. When Ana, another volunteer, calls, “Who hasn’t had any yet?” her hand shoots into the air, despite the first sandwich still in the other. Luckily, there’s more than enough to go around.