Tofu, that easy target for humor and deprecation to many in the US, has been popular for thousands of years in Asia, but you might not expect to find it in the highlands of Guatemala. The story of how it got there is an inspiring look at one community reaching out to help another with a simple solution to a terrible problem.
When carpenters travelled from the Farm Community, an intentional community in southern Tennessee, in 1976 to respond to a devastating earthquake in Guatemala, they encountered more than buildings in need of repair. Many children had been left orphaned and were desperately in need of care. More volunteers were recruited from the Farm, and six women went to Guatemala to help set up an orphanage, providing care for 37 children and preparing daily meals for over 90 people. The children themselves were severely malnourished, a condition not limited to those who had been orphaned; in fact, most children in the area suffered from malnourishment.
The typical children’s diet in the region was solely made up of tortillas, for reasons both economical and cultural. Children who benefited from medical care quickly declined when they returned home, and it was clear that mothers needed help with additional sources of nutrition, as well as education on nutritional guidelines. Back in the US, the Farm Community was well-known for its vegetarianism and their use of soy for a main source of protein, so introducing soy to the communities of Guatemala was a natural extension of their work there.
In October of 1978, a program to introduce soybeans to the area was begun; the first step was to test which variety of plant would thrive at the high elevation, providing income to farmers and nutrition to families. Utilizing their traditional utensils and cooking methods, women learned how to cook soy cheese and milk, providing vital nutrition to their children. The new foods were embraced by the community, and at the end of each class, kids gathered around eager for samples. The combination of tofu, a complete protein, was the perfect supplement to the traditional diet of tortillas.
In order to make the soy foods more accessible to those who did not have time to make soy products at home, the program expanded to build a soy dairy that would not only be a source of food, but also of job opportunities. Since its inauguration in early 1980, the soy dairy in San Bartolo has been a successful operation, and has become a model for the founding of similar facilities across the globe. The success of the project in utilizing soy products to alleviate malnutrition and in teaching soy production to create jobs was such that communities from over 50 countries asked program leaders for instruction on implementing similar programs.
Thirty-four years later, the soy project is still providing full-time work to seven Mayan women and vital nutrition to children in the community. The careful introduction of soy to the farming community has meant a high yield crop that — without replacing indigenous food sources — successfully supplements the local diet. The grassroots nature of the project means self-sufficiency, not dependency on foreign aid. And the hero in this story? The humble soybean.
If you wish to become a part of a project like this visit Plenty International.
Photograph by Suzanna Frohman