The Peace Corps is an essential part of our origin story. Peace Corps Volunteers continue to be some of our most valuable resources in the rural areas where we work. Here, volunteer LaTaurus Whitley reflects on the power of finding the right partners at the right time.
by LaTaurus Whitley, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer
ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE
Before moving to Panama to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a sustainable agriculture program, I had never farmed a day in my life. I’m from the city—Spanish Harlem, originally. I have a MBA in Business Administration. Though I was a little nervous about how I’d survive in Panama, I knew that when I put my mind to something, anything is possible.
VEGETABLES: FEW AND FAR BETWEEN
After completing several months of training, I was assigned to work and live in La Pedregosa, a small town of 230 people 90 miles southwest of Panama City.
After living in La Pedregosa for several months, I realized that very few people ate vegetables on a regular basis. Carbohydrates like rice and yuca and proteins like chicken and beef were common but vegetables only appeared at birthday celebrations, and always in the form of ensalada (similar to coleslaw).
I asked around to find out what kind of vegetables people liked. Cabbage, cucumbers, and carrots were all popular. I asked if they would be interested in growing them but everyone lamented that vegetables didn’t grow well in La Pedregosa.
SEEDS OF CHANGE
A month or so into my time in La Pedregosa, I was introduced to Rodrigo Rodriguez, the Country Director of the Sustainable Harvest International Panama program. Right from the start, Rodrigo was kind and enthusiastic. I had a feeling he would make an excellent ally during my two-year service. The Peace Corps Volunteer who lived in La Pedregosa before me had obtained seeds from Rodrigo, so he was already familiar with the community.
I stopped by Sustainable Harvest International’s office in Penonomé one day to get Rodrigo’s advice about growing vegetables in La Pedregosa. Not only did he have advice, he gave me seeds and confidence that conditions for growing could be improved.
I dispersed the seeds to the families who had expressed interest. Indeed, the vegetables grew! When it was time to harvest, however, many families gifted their harvest to me rather than eating it themselves. They added amaranth to their soups but were hesitant to do anything with the less familiar vegetables (like mustard greens).
I decided to offer a cooking class, hoping that it would encourage families to incorporate more vegetables into their diet. Everyone seemed to like the sautéed mustard greens and the classes themselves, but Panamanians (like all of us!) are creatures of habit. My neighbors still relegated their vegetable consumption to ensalada at birthday celebrations.
Though the mustard greens weren’t a big hit, there was enthusiasm around the cooking classes so we shifted our focus to baking.
Given that in rural areas like La Pedregosa, most families cook on open fires, most of the women had never done any baking themselves. I was happy to share with them something new (as they shared so many new things with me).
How do you turn an open fire into an oven? With sand and rocks! We put a layer of sand on the bottom of a big pot and several rocks on top it. We’d then balance whatever we were baking on top of the rocks, covering the pot with a lid to retain the heat.
Together, we experimented with recipes for cakes, pies, and bread made from local fruits and vegetables. No one liked the pineapple cake but mango pie and yuca cake were both popular. Banana bread and lemon cake were the favorites. (Check out the banana bread recipe at the end of this post!)
A group of women at the Catholic church started a monthly dessert raffle, saving the profits to buy more ingredients. Eventually, they saved enough money to build new cabinets for the church.
STOVES FOR GOOD
Through the baking classes, I learned just how difficult it could be to get a good fire going. I also learned about the health risks associated with cooking on an open fire. Smoke inhalation threatens the lungs of those in the kitchen—typically, women and children. In addition, open fires use more wood per meal than a modern stove design.
From talking with Rodrigo, I knew that Sustainable Harvest International had the capacity to build wood-conserving stoves. I asked for their help in building a wood-conserving stove in La Pedregosa that could serve as an example for the community. They agreed.
I was impressed with their level of investment and expertise. Initially, a different organization supplied us with bricks to build the stoves. Skeptical about the quality of the bricks, Rodrigo and Rogelio (the technician) dropped one on the ground to show how raggedy they were. It crumbled apart on impact.
We shifted our brick supply to a brick-maker trained by Sustainable Harvest International and began the work. A crew from La Pedregosa helped with the construction.
The community members who tested out the stove loved it. They baked, cooked soups, rice, and chicken and noted that the fire was easier to start, the food cooked faster, and they used less wood. They also liked how modern the stove looked.
The stove was so successful that many families became interested in building their own. I secured private funding for the materials and Sustainable Harvest International provided training and technical assistance. After witnessing the community’s desire to learn and their beautiful capacity for change, Sustainable Harvest International joined forces with La Pedregosa for five years of life-changing support.
BRIDGING THE DIVIDE
Since my departure from La Pedregosa last August, Sustainable Harvest International has continued to work with the present volunteer. Through this partnership, some farms have been absolutely transformed. For example, Felicia and Alberto tried to grow vegetables on their land for fifteen years and failed. With the help of their field trainer, they’re now growing an abundant array of tomatoes, cabbages, and other organic vegetables.
Connecting La Pedregosa with Sustainable Harvest International is what I’m most proud of accomplishing during my Peace Corps service. There’s equal enthusiasm about the partnership in the families in La Pedregosa and the Sustainable Harvest International staff. I’m so grateful for the work they’re doing in La Pedregosa and across Central America.
Rural communities like La Pedregosa stand to benefit from the long-term, transformative partnerships Sustainable Harvest International provides. Financial support is vital to support the lasting change made possible through these partnerships.
It costs $60 to build a wood-conserving stove that protects forests from becoming firewood and improves the health of families. Support a community like La Pedregosa today!
LaTaurus' Banana Bread Recipe
2-3 very ripe bananas peeled/mashed up with a fork until they begin to liquefy
1/3 cup of melted butter or oil
3/4 cup of sugar
1 tablespoon of vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg and cinnamon
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1.5 cups of flour