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  • Writer's pictureDr. Dominic Dixon

The Mexican school where pupils plant, harvest and eat together

Local families in Puebla are cultivating a healthy, #ZeroHunger attitude to food

The school’s vegetable gardens are inspiring a culture of healthy eating that is spreading to the children’s home life as well. ©FAO/Fernando Reyes Pantoja

Elvis Cortés Hernández grabs his lunch and sits down with his friends. We’re at the General Lázaro Cárdenas school in Ajalpan, deep in the heart of Mexico’s Puebla province and the ten–year–old is chatting about the school’s vegetable garden, one element of its progressive food policy. “I like to eat in the school dining room because they give me carrots, broccoli and fruit,” he says, crushing a piece of mango with his teeth.

The pupils’ involvement in the initiative goes much further than just sitting down to eat lunch together each day: all 96 students, with occasional help from their parents, also have a hand in growing the food themselves in the school’s very own garden. Raised plant beds were put in place by the country’s ministry of agriculture in conjunction with FAO methodology after a study by local NGO, SURCOS, discovered high levels of malnutrition in the Náhuatl community in the town of Ajalpan. Eighty–seven percent of youth were found to be suffering from health issues caused by poor diet, itself a product of the economic hardships suffered by the families of the school kids.

The garden, which is currently producing 13 different types of vegetables and is also home to a henhouse, has been responsible for more than just an uptick in the students’ health. Since the school decided to take an active role in what its children ate, their grades have also gone up. “We are discovering that students’ poor marks are definitely caused by unhealthy eating,” says the School’s Director, José Cirilo Cruz Peralta. “It was a good moment to try and link these two things and make something positive out of it.”

Stalks of coriander and carrot tops sway in the hillside breeze creating a verdant classroom for the pupils as they sit on the side of the whitewashed vegetable beds. “Prof Cirilo,” as the school’s director is known, uses the garden to teach the children more than just how to look after themselves and the environment.

Two members of the school staff, Juan Arturo Córdoba and Matilde Cruz, explain that they use the garden to aid lessons in multiplication and division as the pupils use rulers to measure out perimeters and areas for the seed beds. Basic biology lessons are supplied by the hens, who also provide between 15 and 18 eggs each day for the dining room.

The school gives breakfast and lunch to its students every weekday, and the children’s enthusiasm within their educational compound has spread to their home life. Some parents are following the school’s example and creating their own garden plots at home.

Leticia de Jesús Carrera, whose children attend General Lázaro Cárdenas, says that before the garden’s existence she did not have enough money to buy vegetables for the family. As her children’s knowledge of food and sustainability increased due to their involvement in growing the food for the school table, they educated her in turn. “Now,” she says, “we know how to make compost, how to grow the plants, look after them and then harvest them.”

There has, however, been one “casualty” of the school’s move to a sustainable food policy—and that is the school snack shop. Before the garden yielded its delicious produce (currently on the menu is chard, carrots, spinach, beetroot and cauliflower), parents used to give their children pocket money with which to buy snacks.

As their nutritional knowledge increased, however, they understood that, more than processed snacks or junk food, a plant-based diet would sustain their kids throughout the long scholastic day. “It didn’t do them any good,” says Enedina Nery Maldonado, another mother. “We decided to close the shop down because it was selling everything that we know isn’t good for our children. This sort of food does terrible damage to their bodies, affecting everything from their teeth to their gut.”

As well as watching the daily progress of the vegetables, the pupils get their hands dirty, planting the seeds and even harvesting the crops when they are ready for the cooking pot. As natural science lessons go, it is a vital and enduring one, with a practical side sorely absent in many parts of the world. “The Prof”, whose black leather jacket belies his gentle manner, calls it “a good solution to bad eating, without having to bring food in from far away.” He ends with a welcome truth. “We are sowing seeds and harvesting the produce in our playground. That has created a culture of healthy eating in the school which has spread to the children’s homes.”

Copyright: Food and Agriculture Organization Stories.

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