Growing Hope in Uruguay

Janet is a 37-year-old mother of three, living with her husband in Progreso, 32 kilometers from Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. Life is not easy for her family – Janet is unemployed, and her husband only has occasional work doing odd jobs. It is often a struggle to put food on the table for their children, Brucen (17), Analia (11) and Alan (2). Their home is very basic, made of metal and lightweight materials. The house has no bathroom.

Health problems add to the family’s burdens. Brucen suffers from a mental disability, and Janet herself is fighting a disease that is affecting her pancreas and kidneys.

In a situation where so much seems outside of her control, Janet has found ways to empower herself and provide for her family. She is learning to read and write through the Anglican Diocese of Uruguay’s Sí Puedo (“Yes, I Can”) program, and she is also learning how to plant and cultivate a vegetable garden with the help of a program called El Sembrador (“The Sower”), based in Progreso. El Sembrador is a partner organization of the Uruguayan Church, and is supported by Episcopal Relief & Development. This program is helping people to feed themselves through small-scale farming initiatives and domestic gardens in their homes, schools and churches.

Uruguay used to be the “Switzerland of South America,” with a thriving industrial sector, a highly educated workforce and exclusive resorts. However, the economic collapse of neighboring Argentina in the late 1990s had a catastrophic impact on Uruguay’s banks, causing a plunge in the local currency and dramatic job loss. The unemployment rate in disadvantaged areas of the country is still as high as 30%. Communities like Progreso that were already on the brink of poverty are now dealing with hunger.

“Uruguay as a country is not at the top of the poverty index, but people forget that there are always very poor and vulnerable communities,” says Karla Avila, Program Officer for Episcopal Relief & Development. “This is one of our smaller programs, but the results that we are getting have a tremendous impact in these communities.”

The training offered by El Sembrador takes people through the entire process of creating and maintaining a garden, including making gardening tools and composting organic household waste to enrich the soil naturally and at no cost. The program provides start-up seeds and training on how to till and fertilize the soil. New gardeners learn how to care for the growing plants and when to harvest produce.

The great thing about gardening is that, with a bit of earth and a little know-how, anyone can get started. Janet has planted a garden in her backyard, and the children at School Number 180 in Villa Felicidad, a village near Progreso, have even made their own greenhouse. The food that the students produce is helping to give them healthy, filling meals.

The availability of home-grown, fresh food can have huge nutritional and economic benefits. To maximize both, El Sembrador’s home cooking classes teach methods of cooking produce in ways that are affordable and healthy. By increasing the knowledge and use of local fruits and vegetables, the program is improving the quality and variety of food available in and around Progreso, allowing people to maintain a more balanced diet. Growing food at home also saves money, and can even add income when families have surplus produce to sell in the local market.

When families have healthy, nutritious meals and extra money to invest in education and trade, children thrive. This is especially important in the communities served by El Sembrador, where children sometimes account for over half the population. Good food gives kids the strength to grow and to ward off sickness, as well as energy and concentration to do well in school. Having access to fresh produce may seem a small thing, but it goes a long way toward ensuring a better future for children, their families and their communities.