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Linking families, farms and schools in Guatemala

Many Guatemalans struggle with hunger and food insecurity. According to the recent Panorama report, as recently as 2019, about 45 per cent of the country suffered from food insecurity and 16 per cent from hunger. This is an especially difficult problem for the nation’s children. In too many cases, lack of access to adequate food leaves children feeling weak and unable to concentrate in school, complicating both their physical and intellectual growth.

To address this problem, Guatemala approved a new School Nutrition Law in 2017. Its objective is to ensure that adequate, nutritious food is delivered to school pupils across the country – and it establishes that at least 50 per cent of that food must be purchased from local family farmers.

When the law went into effect the following year, it brought about sweeping changes, introducing a host of reforms and quadrupling the amount spent on school meals by the national government. But precisely because it was such a big step forward for the nation’s school-goers, neither the schools themselves, nor the farmers or even the parents, were prepared to meet all its requirements and goals.

In early 2019, IFAD and its RBA partners, in coordination with Guatemala’s Ministry of Education, Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, and local authorities, established a pilot programme to help Guatemalan farmers and school systems explore how to maximize the law’s intended benefits. The programme is currently active in three of the country’s departments (Alta Verapaz, Chiquimula and San Marcos), and the best practices learned from this pilot are expected to eventually be scaled up nation-wide.

The arrival of COVID-19 in early 2020 meant that many project activities had to be adapted to meet national safety guidelines. Nevertheless, the programme has never stopped working, and all of its activities continue to benefit families and farmers to this day. We spoke with several participants in San Marcos Department to learn more about what the programme looks like on the ground and how they’re doing now.

Members of the parents’ association at the San José de Granados School prepare for a food distribution day.

Benefits for farmers, benefits for schools

“Some seven years ago, you would see a lot of malnutrition in this community,” says Yulissa Morales, president of the parents’ association at the San José de Granados School in San Antonio Sacatepéquez.

But now, the pilot programme brings healthy meals to more than 12,000 children in 60 schools across 20 municipalities.

The programme works directly with the schools and parents’ associations, providing trainings in everything from menu planning to food purchasing management.

“Together with the teachers, we look at orders, prices, and vendor quotes; we verify that deliveries are made and that the food is of adequate quality; and we put together the best possible menu,” Yulissa explains.

With a steady supply of safe, healthy food at hand, the students get all the nutritious meals they need to thrive. And these benefits extend to the more than 1,600 family farmers participating in the programme.

“We have the security of a confirmed order,” says Francisco Mejía, a farmer from the community of La Felicidad. “Sometimes prices drop in the market, but the prices for the school orders are fixed over a certain period of time. That allow us to plan our work and to anticipate our income.”

The 2017 law prioritizes a range of 15–20 crops for sale to schools, but many local farmers only work with four to eight crops. Thanks to a supply network set up by the RBA programme, farmers have been able to coordinate with each other to get the maximum benefits of the law.

Teachers and parent volunteers prepare packages of fresh produce for families to pick up.

The RBA programme also trains local farmers in a whole range of matters, from good agricultural practices to post-harvest management and product commercialization.

Francisco’s family is now rotating their crops, while in the past, they – like many other farmers in the area – would have planted only maize. "The Ministry of Agriculture has constantly helped us with advice about our crops, best practices and management,” he says. “God willing, we will eventually transition to organic.”

The trainings even extend to accounting and bookkeeping. The 2017 law ushered in a complex set of tax and documentation requirements for participating farmers – and as Miguel García, a local accounting advisor, explains, many farmers didn’t know how to keep the right sorts of records at first. But thanks to the assistance of Mr. García and other accountants working with the programme, local farmers were able to get their books organized.

These benefits extend not only to the 1,600 school vendors, but also to many other farmers in the area.

"The project has generated work in my community,” explains Ovidio Cardona, a farmer from the Vista Hermosa settlement in San Antonio Sacatepéquez. “In my case, when my family can't help me, I pay two workers to help me take the product to the schools."

Pre-pandemic, there were groups of dedicated parent volunteers waiting in the school kitchens, ready to get cooking. Supplied with all the necessary utensils and kitchen equipment thanks to the RBA programme, they had everything they needed to prepare a nutritious meal.

As WFP’s Karen Kestler explains, the groups used to rotate so that each parent could learn how to prepare each item on the menu. It’s that degree of community participation, she says, that makes this programme truly special.

After hours of intense preparation, packages of fresh, local produce stand ready for pickup by students’ families.

Farm-fresh at home: Adaptations for Guatemala’s safety measures

With Guatemala’s schools closed, their kitchens now stand empty – but the deliveries of fresh food from local farmers haven’t stopped. Instead of being prepared at the schools, the produce is now collected by parents to take home and cook in their own kitchens.

“The programme has fully adapted to the COVID-19 circumstances and has continued to meet its goals," says Oscar Grajeda, IFAD’s Country Programme Officer for Guatemala.

Nevertheless, many are eager to see a return to normality.

"It would be nice if the programme returned to the way it worked before, because I miss the children,” Ovidio says with a touch of nostalgia. “When I would arrive at a school, the children would say, ‘Don Ovidio, what are we having for lunch today?’ And I would tell them the menu by heart. I am sorry to no longer see the children and hear that."

Despite all the difficulties, the RBA pilot programme has managed to ensure a steady stream of fresh, nutritious food for thousands of Guatemala’s school pupils. This is no small achievement at all – and as Guatemala begins the long process of recovery and rebuilding, the programme’s efforts are paving the way for a healthier future for the nation’s schoolchildren.

Learn more about IFAD's work in Guatemala.