As we are winding our way up the road that leads high into the cool, shady mountains of coffee country, Doña Nereyda makes an exclamation at my side, “Look there! It’s tuna cactus! We have to get some leaves for tomorrow.” She has been intently gazing out the window for the last hour, pointing out the different plants, trees, and fruits she spies as we climb further toward our destination. She does this, I soon learn, in every community she visits. This way, she can take stock of the resources available in each particular community and talk to the residents in a way that is relevant, practical and relatable.
Doña Nereyda is a Nicaraguan nutritionist, with more than 20 years of experience imparting trainings in communities throughout the country with the nonprofit organization Soynica. We are on our way with a small group of others to the training center of Acción Médica Cristiana (a partner organization of World Renew). Here we will spend two days in a workshop with ten men and women from nearby communities to discuss food, health, local products and methods of preparation.
The folks who will attend the training have been planting vegetable gardens this year for the very first time. But a lot of them don’t traditionally use vegetables in the foods they cook, so the ripe vegetables have gone either to the market or to waste, not into their family’s bellies.
It goes beyond just vegetables, too. In rural communities, cooking know-how often just comes from what was passed down to a person from their parents or grandparents. There is little access to education about how and why to cook balanced meals and many of the healthier traditions from the past have been lost. Cue in Doña Nereyda, who is just the lady to explain why eating your vegetables is so important. She is 60 years old, palpably enthusiastic and carries a wealth of experience and nutrition knowledge in her mind.
We see this firsthand the next morning as we begin the training with a basic nutrition theory class.“Today, I am from Santa Luz,” Doña Nereyda emphatically announces to the room, referring to the region where the residents’ communities are located. “And we are going to learn how to make meals using what we already have in our own yards.”
With that, she launched into a discussion of the importance of eating local produce and cooking healthy meals. Producing colorful posters and telling engaging stories, she talked about the dramatic change in the Nicaraguan diet over the centuries.
Before the Spanish conquest, the diet mainly consisted of bush meat, corn, honey, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and food was cooked over fire using clay pots. With the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, they brought new things with them like pigs, shortening, rum, and new cooking materials and methods. And in the time after the conquest, more new traditions were born, like thenacatamal, gallo pinto, tajadas fritas, and carne asada. From 1979 on, a continually more globalized world brought even more foreign products. Preservatives and artificial coloring were introduced in the form of chips, sauces, industrially produced tortillas, cereals, sodas, processed milk, and candies.
From here, Doña Nereyda continued on to explain the properties of the different food groups, what constitutes a healthy diet for each stage of life, how to defend against both physical and mental illnesses, facts on maternal health, and so much more. As I looked around the room, I realized I wasn’t the only one drawn in by her presentation. Every person was attentive, engaged and scribbling notes. Questions and comments soon began to pop up:
“I have a lot of dragon-fruit growing on my property, what are some alternative ways I can use it?”
“We used to just let the lemons from our tree rot because we never knew the nutritional properties they carried. Then we’d use our extra cash to buy soda.”
“A lot of the women in the community talk about how much they dislike vegetables – carrots, radishes, beets… they don’t understand why they are important for consumption. I’m grateful to be here today to learn why they are so I can go back to my community and share this.”
During the afternoons, we took class outside to the wood-burning stove and a long table where Doña Nereyda spread the cooking ingredients. She called out instructions, and soon everyone had a job chopping, peeling, sifting, grinding, stirring away. We learned how to make an array of dishes using local ingredients including the infamous tuna cactus as well as passion-fruit, bananas, coconuts, rice, beans, eggs, foliar extract from leaves and more.
Most of the recipes were an alternative take on many traditional dishes. Although they parted slightly from the norm, most people were enthusiastic about the new variations and agreed that they even tasted good! We cooked, laughed, learned and tasted – and everyone went home with new recipes, facts and encouragement to share with their families and neighbors.
On Friday, we found ourselves packing up the car, saying goodbye and setting out on the long
road back home. As we began our descent down the curving mountain road, I heard Doña Nereyda in the backseat, “Would you look at all those mangos on that tree? And all going to waste! What a shame!”
Written by: Bethany Beachum