Victory Gardens Feed Soup (Tortilla) Kitchens

BY: JOHN APPLESEED

Almost 40% of preschoolers in Southern Baja California suffer from food insecurity, according to a study conducted by the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service on Food Security & Nutrition in Mexico.  That’s way above the national Mexican average where chronic malnutrition in children under five is about 13%.  Causes of poor nutrition can be related to culture, environment, resources, location, and access. 

To help address this food poverty, the ICF (International Community Foundation), along with local social, government and business organizations in Southern Baja,  formed the Southern Baja Food Security Alliance (SBFSA) to improve food security within the region and promote access to healthy and fresh food for low income and at risk families.  This alliance is working with organizations and projects already in place to promote long-term food security and not just gifts of food.

One of the goals of the  Food Security Alliance is to harvest and make available to the community the produce that isn’t good enough for export, and is left in the fields to rot or is disposed of in the packing sheds. They want to establish food rescue and distribution teams to make this food available to free meal kitchens.  

One way the government is involved is through the meal kitchens supported by SEDESOL-Sin Hambre, (a government agency’s sub agency called Without Hunger). This will eventually provide primary nutrition to thousands of families.  It’s a struggle to keep fresh vegetables and fruit on their menus because access to produce in the Baja is limited. Yes, I know we grow here, but the best is exported under large annual contracts. First quality fruits and veggies have to be shipped back. So SEDESOL is supporting back yard garden initiatives through the existing kitchens. With help, local families involved in the kitchens start a garden in their yard or a vacant patch of land in their neighborhood. 

An example of this collaboration between organizations is the Pilot Organic Garden Project at the Kitchen Real Unidad.  This kitchen is actually a ministry of the Cabo Church which means it is funded by donations given to Feeding Los Cabos Kids.   It’s lead by Pastor Sotelo and the lead kitchen volunteer mom, Mirta Gamino Gonzalez.  Mirta supervises 25 cooks and feeds breakfast and lunch to 120 kids every day.

For this garden project SEDESOL paid for the water and ponied up the volunteers, and ICF donated the dinero for construction and continued support.  ICF recruited the mothers who volunteer to cook at the kitchen to get them involved in planting, weeding, and plucking the garden. 

The first garden project started last November, and it took three weeks just to prep the ground.   Since the soil consisted mostly of pebbles and sand, they had to dig up and bring in dirt from the riverbeds.  Then they built a fence and a water system for irrigation.  In December, they planted a variety of crops such as tomatoes, chilis, cucumbers, broccoli, sweet potatoes, zucchini, calendula, bananas, papaya, aloe, Swiss chard, and beans.  

During the planting, the volunteers showed the locals how to place plants based on the amount of sun and root space needed. 

The harvest is incorporated into meals the kitchen prepares and shared with the volunteers at the kitchen.  There is a compost pile in the corner which is made up of leaves and grass since it decomposes faster than food.  The compost is used to enrich the soil. Part of the pilot project is to see which crops grow well in this harsh climate and plant those next year.  Volunteers also teach workshops about nutrition and how to prepare food.  One workshop taught the mothers how to make pots from plastic bottles for small plants like cilantro. Now, everyone is growing their own cilantro. 

On April 1, many organizations gathered at this kitchen to see the organic community garden and witness the fruits of their efforts.  Groups in attendance included SEDESOL- Sin Hambre (without hunger), ICF, DIF, (family oriented charity), Cabo Church, Yo Reciclo, the San Jose Organic Market, and just plain old citizens you and us. 

The garden season is November through June and so far it has been a success.  The plants looked healthy and there were an abundance of tomatoes still growing on the vine.  Mirta, the lead mother, said that tomatoes are like women: they don’t stop giving and the more you cut them, the more they reproduce. (Yikes! Who’s cutting on those barrio mothers?)

All the knowledge and life skills that these mothers have gained can be implemented at home in using more fresh vegetables when cooking and by sharing their new gardening skills with their neighbors.  So far this garden project has been a success for everyone involved and shows what can happen when different organizations of good people come together: They bring change one carrot at a time.