Eight years of progress

How a Cargill-CARE partnership in Central America is lifting people out of poverty

By Emily Kaiser April 20, 2017

Above: Alta Gracia Arevalo serves a morning snack to students at Centro Educativo Francisco Coll in Guatemala City. Cargill helped build the school's kitchen in 2013 as part of its partnership with CARE.

Photos by Steve Niedorf

Alta Gracia Arevalo arrives at the school kitchen at 5:30 a.m. to start preparing breakfast for nearly 300 students in Guatemala City’s Zone 3, one of the poorest and most dangerous areas in the country. Her kitchen window at Centro Educativo Francisco Coll is the students’ first stop when they arrive in the morning.

As students round the corner and see her, their eyes light up. They line up, waving and greeting her as she serves a fortified porridge with milk.

Most students come to the primary school with an empty stomach. Some didn’t even get a full meal for dinner the night before. Almost all of their parents work in the nearby basurero, or garbage dump, scrounging for recycling material to sell for income.

Arevalo´s daily mission of feeding the students is personal. When she talks about the struggles these students face, her eyes fill with tears.

“It’s so painful to see because I went through it too,” she said through a translator. “I understand these people. I once lived on 6 quetzales a day, eating tortillas and butter. My scars have not healed yet.”

Her kids went to this school, and her daughter came back to teach.

“I prepare porridge with such love because I know how much they need it,” she said. “They look forward to coming to school every day because they depend on us to keep them safe and healthy.”

Just three years ago, the school didn’t have a kitchen. Food was prepared on the ground. In 2013, Cargill helped build the school’s kitchen. The space provides a clean place for cooking and secures the food from thieves that may try to break into the school at night.

The kitchen is just one element of Cargill’s work to improve the livelihoods of people across Central America, a region experiencing economic growth but struggling to reduce poverty and food insecurity. In partnership with international humanitarian organization CARE, Cargill launched the Nutriendo el Futuro (Nourishing the Future) program in 2008. The partnership, which just wrapped up its second phase, has touched more than 277,000 people in Central America, including assistance for 100,000 farmers and nutrition education for 130,000 children and their families.

Nourishing the Future started in Honduras and expanded to reach 11 municipalities: three in Guatemala, three in Honduras and five in Nicaragua. It aims to foster more prosperous and resilient communities across the region.

As with all Cargill-CARE partnerships globally, the Central America collaboration melds Cargill’s expertise in food and agriculture with CARE’s decades of success in community-led rural development, helping communities to take a leading role in identifying problems and developing solutions they can sustain for themselves.

“As a food and agriculture company, we rely on consistent and productive farmers, a growing economy of consumers to buy our products and a strong future of talent to help our business succeed,” said Xavier Vargas, president of Cargill Meats Central America, the company’s primary business in the region. “By strengthening the communities we work in, we’re creating growth potential for Cargill.”

In 2016, Cargill renewed its global commitment to CARE for three years. The additional funding for Central America – more than $3 million – will continue funding work in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and also expand to Costa Rica.

“Nourishing the Future goes so deep into communities and integrates so well with Cargill’s purpose,” said Marcela Hahn, CARE associate vice president of strategic partnerships. “Cargill’s commitment to Central America inspires us and we look forward to building on the progress we’ve made.”

The impact of the partnership can be seen in schools, homes and on farms across the region.

In schools

inpage-CARE-nicaragua Students at John Douglas elementary school in Masaya, Nicaragua, play a giant board game that is part of the Nourishing the Future curriculum. The game focuses on healthy food choices and behaviors like staying active, brushing your teeth and using safe drinking water in food preparation. About 70 km northwest of Centro Educativo Francisco Coll is San Martin Jilotepeque. It’s at least two hours by car up rugged mountain roads.

The Rafael Alvarez Ovalle school, in the village of Pachay, is up against extreme rural poverty that leads to some families taking their kids out of class to help make a livable income. About 95 percent of families at the school work in agriculture, primarily growing corn and beans for local consumption and green beans for export.

The school’s principal, Aparicio Camey Lozano, said efforts to stop desertion have been successful in recent years. Now the school is working with Nourishing the Future to improve the wellbeing of the students, who have long struggled with malnutrition. In fact, a 2008 study at the school found that about 7 out of 10 students were severely stunted due to chronic malnutrition.

“Stunted height is a big concern for parents,” said Astrid Carrillo, a CARE nutritionist.

To tackle the problem, the school worked with CARE to implement programming targeted at teachers, students and parents. First, teachers are trained in proper nutrition and hygiene, which is passed on to the students during class. To help make these healthy habits stick, the school invites parents in for assemblies to ensure the practices continue at home.

“The children lack regular health care, so our assemblies are a time for parents to understand their health,” said Carrillo.

The school has seen remarkable success: By 2015, only 4 out of 10 children were still considered chronically malnourished. But there is still work to be done, Carrillo said, noting that many of the 12-and 13-year old boys at the school are currently the height of an average child about half their age.

The problem is widespread. At a nearby school that is also part of Nourishing the Future, 13-year-old Alexander fell behind two years in school when his health declined from poor eating habits. “I used to spend a lot of time in bed,” he said. “I was a lot weaker.”

He’s regained his strength and improved his studies since participating in his school’s Nourishing the Future program, which includes a garden on the property where students plant vegetables like chard, radishes and carrots. Older students like Alexander also take classes where they learn how to cook the vegetables they harvest. Across Central America, Cargill and CARE have implemented 61 of these school gardens.

Today the future is brighter for Alexander. He says he is able to concentrate better in school, and hopes to one day be a mason and build houses like his dad.

The project has seen major improvements across the region, thanks to the 15,881 community members who received education and training on nutrition, said Maria Hinson, senior program officer for CARE’s Food and Nutrition Security Unit. Analysis of the last years shows families in the program saw a decrease in the number of months they were food insecure. Guatemala families dropped from five months to two, a 60 percent improvement. Honduras and Nicaragua showed improvements of 19 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

In homes

In order for the nutrition education at school to be sustainable, parents are expected to put the new knowledge into action at home. To support families, CARE nutrition and agriculture technicians conduct home visits for individualized assistance in home gardens and one-on-one cooking lessons.

The home of Blanca Etelvina Semeyá de Cardona in the San Juan Comalapa community in Guatemala is one of the program’s success stories. When CARE came to her home in 2008, the garden wasn’t fenced in, leaving it at risk for contamination from livestock and wild animals. The chickens and other animals on the property weren’t vaccinated, which left them prone to disease.

Today, her garden is flourishing with 10 different varieties of herbs and vegetables. On a recent visit, the mother of four was preparing lunch with the help of two CARE nutrition volunteers. She picked a large handful of greens, herbs and tomatoes for a stew.

Before CARE helped her plant a garden, their family meals were very basic, she said. They were consuming a lot of corn, beans and lima beans because they grew easily and were part of their traditional meals. Now she is learning to create vegetable-focused meals flavored with herbs. Her fresh tortillas are a side item instead of the focal point of the plate.

The in-home efforts are paying off. Families in all three countries diversified their diets. The dietary diversity scores for all three countries went up 16 to 45 percent in the last three years. CARE’s Hinson said these numbers show that the programming offered to students, teachers and farmers is actually being applied in their everyday lives.

“Parents and students are able to clearly articulate the pillars of nutrition, identify nutrient-dense vegetables and actually put that knowledge on their tables at home,” she said. “This is how we create a sustainable solution for lifting families out of poverty.”

Following the program through to the homes and understanding how families integrate it into daily life is essential for the project’s success, said Maria Nelly Rivas, Central America’s regional corporate responsibility manager based in Nicaragua.

“We want our social responsibility work to go beyond charity work and giving,” she said. “These communities are getting the tools they need to grow and thrive on their own.”

On farms

Back in San Martin Jilotepeque, farmer Maria Bernarda Balá Morales picks green beans on her plot. Farmers like her had been struggling just a year ago to make a living because they often have small pieces of land and inconsistent crops.

inpage-CARE-guatemala Farmer Maria Bernarda Balá Morales picks green beans on her plot in San Martin Jilotepeque, Guatemala. Through the CARE program, Morales doubled her production. Before being approached by CARE, Morales was selling her green beans in a local market and wasn’t making ends meet. She could only sell what she was able to carry on her back because she lacked transportation.

Through Nourishing the Future, Morales received some initial capital to help her start planting a larger plot of land and training on proper planting techniques. In a year, her production doubled.

“I am trying to give my kids an education and bring food to the table,” Morales said. “Now we are getting ahead, and I am starting to envision improvements to our home.”

But for a single producer like Morales, the market is still small. Larger companies that export products like green beans don’t work with small individual producers, and maneuvering the market to find a reliable middleman can be overwhelming. Nourishing the Future enabled 50 female producers to connect, form cooperatives and share the costs of connecting to larger buyers with their combined harvest.

Celvia Elizabeth Lara Xalin, a CARE employee who helps coordinate the producers, said a major part of the training is restoring self-esteem.

“We focus on producers valuing themselves as women,” she said. “We help them see that it’s not just men who can work and provide for their families. Their skills help improve their family’s quality of life.”

The efforts are working. A recent CARE study, which looked at women’s empowerment among participants, saw big gains in all three countries. In Honduras, the empowerment index was up 21 percent. The index measures how empowered women feel to financially provide for their family and how much control they have at home to make purchasing decisions.

In March, the San Martin Jilotepeque farmers received an additional $10,000 to expand. Xalin said their next step will include providing the group with pigs to raise for protein.

For Morales, the program is life changing.

“I am so blessed, she said. “For me this is a step ahead. I am motivated to keep improving and doing better for my children so they can someday go to college and become professionals.”

Across Central America, the impact on farmers has been well documented. Through Nourishing the Future, 7,889 farmers were able to improve their agricultural production and more than 2,800 were connected to markets, such as Cargill, that they previously didn’t sell to.

The next phase

As the third phase of the Cargill-CARE partnership in Central America begins, leaders from both organizations have the opportunity to step back and look at the successes and challenges so far.

Clearly, the partnership is seeing a lot of success in raising incomes of families. In Guatemala, average per capita monthly income for participants in the entrepreneur or farmer training programs increased 117 percent. Honduras saw a 165.4 percent increase, and Nicaragua lagged behind with a 22.5 percent increase.

While the numbers look impressive, Hinson said it’s important to see that in the case of Guatemala, for example, that is still just $215.69 USD per month. In Nicaragua, it’s only $83.16 USD per month. Many of the high-level numbers are promising, but when Hinson digs into the data she sees room for improvement in the years ahead.

For example, all three countries saw overall access to agricultural inputs such as land, seed, tools and machinery increase between 25 to 34 percent. But when you specifically look at access to machinery and other inputs like fertilizer, less than 20 percent of farmers said they had adequate access.

The differences between male and female farmers is also stark. In Guatemala, only one-third of female farmers said they had access to necessary tools compared to 70 percent of male farmers. In Nicaragua, 97 percent of male farmers said they had access to land compared to 20 percent of female producers.

“I don’t think we have achieved prosperous and resilient communities yet, but we are well on our way,” Hinson said.

This new phase will also add Costa Rica to Nourishing the Future, bringing all Central America countries where Cargill operates into the partnership. The Costa Rica program will look similar to the other countries, with a focus primarily on strengthening nutrition education. CARE and Cargill are currently working on recruiting schools near Cargill’s facilities to participate.

Moving forward, Cargill aims to create a more focused connection with its businesses and to set strong benchmarks on improvements to measure.

“We are working on how to make this partnership even more impactful,” said Michelle Grogg, Cargill’s senior director of corporate responsibility. “We have worked over the years to strengthen the goals and outcomes of our partnership and ensure we are aligned with our business priorities. Ultimately, we want to show how partnerships like these are helping Cargill achieve its purpose to nourish the world in a safe, responsible and sustainable way.”

One element that will continue to be important is creating solutions to help communities be resilient, particularly as climate change affects those dependent on predictable weather for strong harvests, Grogg said. That’s why Nourishing the Future helps families also expand their income streams outside of agriculture to stabilize their livelihoods.

Back at the school in Guatemala City, Maria Cristina Jose Miguel proudly laid out an array of beaded necklaces, bracelets and headbands. Just three months earlier, she was part of a jewelry-making class offered to mothers at the school.

inpage-CARE-jewelry-guatemala Maria Cristina Jose Miguel displays the beaded jewelry she created in a class offered to mothers at her kids' school in Guatemala City. Miguel used to work at the garbage dump collecting recycling with her husband. More than 7,000 people – an estimated 1,000 of them children – spend their days there, waist-deep in trash with vultures circling overhead. They return to makeshift tin homes, often masked by the putrid smoke seen rising out of frequent trash fires.

The training offered through CARE allowed Miguel to leave her job at the dump and focus on jewelry instead to help care for her three children ages 8, 10 and 11.

She plans to sell her jewelry in a nearby market. She hopes the additional income she’s bringing home will help her kids have a brighter future.

“I want them to be professionals when they grow up,” she said. “I don’t want them to work at the dump. I don’t want to see them live the life I had.”

For tens of thousands of kids like hers, the future is now looking much different.