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LDS Church vegetable program helps Bolivians

SURIQUINA,

Bolivia — William Guerrero is building a reputation as a first-rate

soccer player here in this remote region of the Bolivia Altiplano some

14,000 feet above sea level.

This is

an impoverished area. William will likely never play on an organized

team. He may never own a pair of cleats. But the 12-year-old boy can

dribble his well-worn ball along the hardened paths of soil outside his

home like a veteran.

__IMAGE2__Young William is strong and looks like he could run forever.

No

surprise, said his mother, Bernita Choque. When William's not at school

or outside playing soccer with his many siblings, he's likely eating

something. Over the past year, William and his family have been

enjoying a more healthy, balanced diet thanks to an LDS

Church-sponsored greenhouse project that is bringing spinach, carrots

and other vitamin-rich produce to a region where vegetables are

typically scarce.The people of the

Bolivian Altiplano have long existed on a diet of meat and potatoes.

The climate here is simply too harsh for traditional farming and

reliable plant growth of most types of vegetables. As a result, many

people here live in a perpetual state of vitamin starvation.

Historically,

"the (Altiplano) people are malnourished," said Wade Sperry, an

agronomist working as a field operations manager for the welfare

department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Such

malnourishment, he explained, can cause developmental problems and

hinder growth and brain development.

Recognizing

the need to incorporate fresh vegetables into the diet of Mormon Altiplano

families, the church introduced a culture-changing technology here in

the form of family underground greenhouses. Dozens of earthen

greenhouses can now be found outside Altiplano homes, including

William's.

Made of adobe and other

simple building materials, the greenhouses are providing families with

year-round access to tomatoes, spinach, lettuce, peppers, carrots and a

produce section's worth of other vitamin-rich veggies.

With

the assistance of the church's Benson Institute Office in La Paz, some

100 families have built greenhouses over the past two years. Most of

the families are Mormon, but many non-Mormon families also have been included

in the project. The greenhouses are typically built underground where

the temperature remains constant, allowing for perpetual harvests,

Sperry said.

__IMAGE1__Most of the greenhouses

are about 5 feet deep, 6 feet wide and usually 10 to 15 feet long.

After digging a rectangular hole, a wooden frame is built that

typically rises about two feet above the ground. A roof made of

fiberglass or plastic is then stretched across the frame.

The

church provided the building materials for the families to get started,

along with plenty of construction assistance and training. The

homeowners and their families perform most of the building and labor.

Principles of self-sufficiency are followed throughout the building

process.

The greenhouse owners also

were given a maiden batch of seeds that would allow them to grow the

vegetables needed to feed their families — with enough produce left

over to sell and purchase more seeds.

Training has been essential to the project's success.

"We

teach the people here that they need 10 hours of sunlight to grow a

good vegetable," said Sperry, "They have to orient their greenhouses so

the sun crosses lengthwise across the greenhouse. Different vegetables

are planted at different depths, and if you get the depth wrong, they

won't grow correctly."

The training

goes beyond building, operating and maintaining the greenhouse. Most

greenhouse owners are still adjusting to eating vegetables on a daily

basis.

"Introducing something new

into the region can be challenging, including changing the diets of the

people," said Elizabeth Garcia, who administers the Benson Institute

Office in Bolivia.

"The people here have had to get used to eating vegetables," added Sperry. "They're not used to the flavor."

Ongoing

Benson Institute training teaches the greenhouse owners how to prepare

the vegetables and ways to cook them or to use the vegetables raw. They

learn to flavor the veggies with salt, herbs or other products to make

them more palatable. Families are also taught the rich nutritional

benefits found in spinach, carrots, tomatoes and other produce.

"The

greenhouse project is a broad program that helps the family understand

how nutrition will help the family improve their health and help their

children improve in school and in life," Sperry said.

Choque has witnessed a change in her family since harvesting their first crop in the family greenhouse.

"The

kids are happier and healthier," said Choque, who is expecting her 10th

child. "They don't seem to get sick much. And they all help with the

greenhouse. The little boys bring in the water. Everyone helps collect

the vegetables."

Choque has also

learned to incorporate green vegetables into her family's traditional

Altiplano diet. She enjoys tossing spinach salads and has learned to

cook vegetable soup.

A broad smile

stretches across Eulogio Ticona's face as he watches his 3-year-old

son, Joel, heft a cucumber from the family greenhouse. The cucumber is

large enough to compete at any county fair.

"My

son is being raised on lettuce, peppers, carrots and other vegetables,"

said Ticona, who is not LDS. "I believe it's helping his intelligence

grow. He's learning his numbers and other things quickly. He's growing

quickly."

Ticona doesn't have much time to talk — vegetables are waiting to be picked.

"They grow fast in here. Before you know it, they're ready to be picked and eaten."


E-mail: jswensen@desnews.com