From Food Desert to Food Forest: Growing and Cooking in Santa Clara

Learning how to navigate the complex politics of food and motherhood in Santa Clara hasn’t been easy, but we’ve come a long way in the six months since beginning our Grow and Cook program here, opening up space for healing and learning with the women of the community and laying the groundwork for future collaborations. While communities like Santa Clara not too long ago enjoyed year-round access to delicious fresh fish, the Yarinacocha lake is now fish-free during the summer months, meaning that even fisherman families no longer have access to this traditional staple as an immediate source of nourishment. The modern nutritional landscape in Shipibo communities has emerged due to a combination of changing environmental realities and intensive marketing of processed foods such as soda, canned milk, and cooking oil as replacement for formerly abundant cultural food staples.

Given the drastic nature of the problems at hand, we are working with the women of the community on incremental changes to help families re-integrate traditional food staples and re-adapt to the realities of climate change and environmental degradation. This has often meant working with mothers to overcome the pride and frustration they feel at being unable to provide for their children.

A prime example of this frustration emerged in the role of rice in the meals we prepare for village children each week. Today, many Shipibo families consume high quantities of plain white rice. In the months where fish disappear from the lake, white rice is, for many children, the main source of nourishment in a day. Since starting to produce yuca and plantains at the permaculture site adjacent to the village primary school, we have begun replacing rice with these cheaper and healthier carbohydrates, using the little money we save to purchase farm chickens and fish (when available) from the villagers themselves. Though the traditional dishes we’re working with the mothers to revive–tacacho, or mashed plantains, for example–are a hit with the kids, there was initial resistance on the part of some women to our shift away from preparing rice each week. As a compromise, we work with the mothers to make healthier rice dishes using the vegetables they are learning to grow themselves.

We supplement this work with weekly workshops and conversationmarikawas with the village women on topics ranging from initiating a home garden, budgeting to integrate healthier food options into their family’s diets, health and hygiene, and the dangers of excessive processed food consumption.

Using the home recipes of our international volunteers, we’ve also made themed meals with traditional Brazilian and Mexican dishes, using food as an intercultural educational opportunity.

Our next step: activating a chicken coop and a fish farm from which we’ll be able to supply fresh, locally-sourced meat proteins to the weekly meals.

Lucy O’Leary, Coordinator Intercultural Education, Alianza Arkana, Sunday, 05 July 2015

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