They glowed with pride as we gathered into the small room full of women and children. Light streamed in from the thatched roof. Smoke billowed to the ceiling and curled it’s way outside. We waited patiently for what was about to happen.
This was a weekly meeting for what the community calls the “Agriculture Group,” implemented by an organization called Food for the Hungry but operated completely by community members with the purpose of learning agriculture practices and recipes in order to improve the community’s overall nutrition.
From the minute they told me about this, I was hooked.
It was about ten years ago I started to think seriously about health and nutrition in my own life.
Growing up, I thought about my health a little bit. I knew it wasn’t healthy to eat ice cream every night before I went to bed, and that carrot sticks were better for my body than cookies. But I also didn’t spend any time thinking about what was in the packaged and processed food I was eating. I had no idea it was killing me.
At twenty years old, I was diagnosed with a condition called Dietary Fructose Intolerance, which means my body is unable to properly process fructose, a sugar occurring in all fruit, many vegetables, and anything packaged or processed with high fructose corn syrup. I had been eating these foods for years without knowing they were damaging my system, making it virtually impossible for me to absorb nutrients.
By the time I realized what was happening, so much damage was already done. I had to change everything about the way I ate, immediately.
I still remember standing in the grocery store, staring silently at the foods I used to buy, realizing I wouldn’t ever be able to eat them again.
It was a good change, but it felt devastating.
This was more than just food. It was my life. And I didn’t know any different.
So when we arrived in Guatemala and our guide, Amalia, told us about the chronic malnutrition in the communities here — how nearly 75% of children in this country suffer from problems related to this condition (the third highest rate of malnutrition in the world) and how Food for the Hungry is working to help communities make lifelong changes — I couldn’t help but feel really excited.
Because I know what it feels like to change everything about the way you eat. I know the feeling of realizing the way you’ve been doing things isn’t working anymore. The guilt. The shame. The confusion.
What a blessing for these families not to have to do it alone.
Days later, here we stood, watching a group of about twenty women gather to show us the garden they had been keeping, the vegetables they had learned to grow, and the subsequent recipes they were trying. They were cooking with kale, chard, radishes, spinach, tomatoes, squash, broccoli, cabbage and they faces were full of smiles. Their children were healthier and happier, and so were they.
And I could tell, as they shared with us the empenadas (dough made from corn and filled with meat and/or vegetables) made from scratch over the fire in that very kitchen, with ingredients from their garden — spinach, onion and tomato — and with fresh, stoneground corn from their fields…
This was not just food for them, either. It was hospitality. Togetherness. Love. A way of life.
In the past year, we learned, the programs Food for the Hungry has provided in the community have helped the children improve their overall nutrition. Mothers raved and thanked us and, everywhere we went, we saw children eating fresh fruit, green beens, and boiled squash. They weigh and measure the children weekly, and are seeing improvements in their growth and health.
These changes are not easy for the families to make. I know from experience. It takes admitting what they were doing before was making them sick. It take changing ingrained habits. It takes a financial sacrifice and lots of time.
But thank goodness they don’t have to do it alone.
Because it’s more than just food that’s changing. It’s ideals and tradition and lifestyle and a way of life.
It’s more than just food that Food for the Hungry is bringing into these communities.
I can attest to that. They’re bringing friendship and relationship and community and education so that, even after FH leaves, the change will be lasting; so there is ownership and buy-in from community leaders, and so no one has to make these changes alone. So the families have the support they need to bring health and hygiene and nutrition and quality of life to their children, and their children’s children, for generations to come.
I wish I would have had that when I had to make drastic changes to my diet.
Because food isn’t just food. It impacts so many other areas of life. And if change is going to be lasting, the change can’t just be about food itself. It has to include all of these areas. Lifestyle. Tradition. Community. Legacy. I know from experience. And I’m for that reason I’m honored to participate with Food for the Hungry and the change they’re inspiring in Guatemala and elsewhere.
It’s more than just food. It’s lifestyle. Community. Friendship.
If you would like to know more about Food for the Hungry, or their work in Guatemala, follow Darrell and I on our trip by searching Twitter and Facebook for the hashtag #FHbloggers. Or consider partnering with FH by sponsoring a child.