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Embracing Guatemalan Culture and Cooking: a Volunteer’s Perspective

Hola from Xela! Hope this post finds you all doing well. My name is Jenna Kennedy, and in the States, I’m entering my second year of medical school in Kansas. This summer, I’m volunteering with Semilla Nueva to conduct a nutrition project in the nearby community of Las Nubes. I’ve lived in Xela for about four weeks now, taking Spanish classes and learning about Semilla Nueva’s work in Guatemala. I’ve also been fortunate to do a bit of traveling around Xela. The communities surrounding Xela are beautiful, each with their own unique products and industries. Some places are known by the locals for their huge fruit and vegetable markets, such as Almolonga.

Salcajar is known for producing beautiful textiles, and I’m told there are 20 different steps involved in producing the textiles pictured here.

In addition to enjoying some beautiful scenery, I’ve also had time to build some awesome relationships here in Xela, especially with my host family. My host mother Irma is one of the most generous, hard working, and kind souls I’ve ever met. On top of that, she is an amazing cook, so you can imagine my sadness when my stay with her family ended. She was equally sad, and we had a tearful goodbye when I left their home Sunday night. Fortunately, she sells her food in the streets of Xela, so I’ve been able to enjoy her cooking since I left.

I will admit, however, that my diet has changed dramatically since I got to Guatemala. At home, I was eating a great variety of proteins, fruits, veggies and whole grains. Living with my host family, I was eating tortillas and beans or eggs at almost every meal. For the first few meals, I felt guilty for what I was eating—what’s more, my body hadn’t consumed processed carbs like this for many months! But then I realized that the foods I was being offered are the diet here, and these people don’t have the same set of choices that I have in my giant supermarket in Kansas City. Yes, there are fruits falling off of the trees in the countryside of Guatemala, but that doesn’t translate into fruits being served at meals in my host family’s kitchen. Every once in a while, we would eat a vegetable for lunch (lunch is typically the biggest meal of the day here). However, those vegetables were usually cooked, and in a good amount of oil. Black beans and eggs are most common proteins here from what I’ve observed, especially in lower and middle class families. Meat is a rare treat here because it is fairly expensive; we made hamburgers the other night, and I think the hamburger was about $3.00 per pound. In comparison, tortillas are 10 for $0.25.

Despite an abundance of natural resources, Guatemala is the most malnourished country in Central America, and its children are the fourth most malnourished in the world. I believe the “comida tipica” (typical food) here is proof of why Semilla Nueva’s work in Guatemala is so important. We’re taking a holistic approach to development that addresses agriculture, environment, nutrition and a host of other issues in the process. We’re learning from locals about what is important to them, the resources available, and how to move forward to find solutions together.

For the rest of the summer, Dacie and I will be working in Santa Inés observing the diets and cooking methods of the community. Santa Inés is a rural community built on the side of a mountain about an hour and a half from Xela. The day we visited they were harvesting potatoes, but they devote most “terreños” (pieces of land) to corn. The community has a well-established leadership structure, with two agricultural promotores and five women serving as “mujeres monitoras” (women monitors) and “promotoras nutricíonales” (nutritional promotores). There is also a community leader who helps oversee other happenings in the community. During our visit, we noticed a substantial Mayan influence in the community, both in clothing and language. It will be interesting to see how Mayan culture influences our work in Santa Inés in the months to come.

We’ll be working with the community to address what nutrients, vitamins, and minerals are missing from the typical diet. The project’s long-term goal is to develop relationships with a group of women in the community who can teach the rest of the community ways to improve their families’ nutrition, whether through incorporating more local plants into the diet or using different cooking methods. We hope you’ll follow our work throughout the summer, and continue to support Semilla Nueva in whatever way you are able even when Dacie and I return to school in the fall. Semilla Nueva is committed to building lasting relationships in the communities in which we work. These are the relationships that will empower the communities to change for the better for many months and years to come.

Jenna Kennedy is a second year med student at Kansas School of Medicine. She is volunteering with Semilla Nueva this summer to assess nutritional needs in rural Guatemalan communities.

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