Paso Ancho is the epitome of an urban neighborhood. It’s buried in the center of San José among coughing vehicles, car alarms, bustling businesses and rushing people, and it may be the last place you would expect to find a thriving organic garden. But sure enough, behind Paso Ancho’s República de Haití Elementary School grow beds of fresh, chemical-free cilantro, radishes, sunflowers and other plants.
The garden is part of the Sustainable Schools Project, an effort to bring organic produce – grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides – to Costa Rican schools and educate the community about the benefits of organics, according to project coordinator Anthony García.
República de Haití, a public school, was chosen as one of three pilot sites for the twoyear project, which began in January.
Another public school, Ildefonso Camago, in Aserrí, a mountain town south of San José, and Instituto Educativo Moderno, a private school in Tres Ríos, east of San José, are also participating in the program, which is sponsored by VECO, a Belgian nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable agriculture; the Costa Rican Organic Agriculture Movement (MAOCO); the National Organic Agriculture Program (PNAO); the National Consumers Council (CNC); and the Costa Rican branch of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The three schools were chosen because of their different circumstances: the project’s coordinators wanted to compare urban to rural and public to private, García explained. A walk through República de Haití’s 2,500-square-meter organic garden reveals organic cilantro, mint and ornamental plants sprouting in various stages of growth. Below the soil’s surface, more vegetables like carrots, cabbage, radishes, and squash are germinating and will hopefully poke up soon, according to school principal Hilda Hidalgo.
“This was an empty space owned by the municipality that was just full of trash and junk,” Hidalgo said, explaining that student and parent volunteers cleared the space, planted the seeds and now maintain the garden during after-school hours and on Saturdays.
Michelle Borrantes, a 12-year-old sixth grader, said she enjoys working in the garden because “it’s fun and I learn a lot.”Asked what she has learned about the benefits of organic agriculture, Borrantes said that “it doesn’t use chemicals and doesn’t harm the earth.” Why is that important?
“We are the future and have to give the best for future generations,” chimed in Borrantes’ classmate Lorely Ugalde, also 12.
The Tico Times spoke with Borrantes, Ugalde and a few of their classmates Aug. 15 during a lunchtime visit to the school. In a no-frills lunchroom against a backdrop of young voices chattering and clinking plates and forks, students shoveled down arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), flavored with cilantro and red bell peppers from the garden.
One of the project’s goals is for schools to serve more organic foods in their lunchrooms, García explained. However, achieving this has been by far “the most challenging part.”
República de Haití consumes everything that comes out of its garden, but that usually amounts to a steady supply of only cilantro, other spices and red peppers, Hidalgo explained. Other vegetables are still growing to picking size and will not be enough to supply the 1,400 lunches cook Elba Gutiérrez and her staff of two prepare daily for the students.
The bulk of the ingredients for these lunches is purchased with funds the school receives from the Public Education Ministry (MEP), but that’s only ¢120 ($0.23) per student per day.
“With what they (MEP) give us, we have to buy the cheapest food possible,” Hidalgo explained, meaning organic foods, more expensive than their conventionally produced counterparts, “weren’t part of our budget.”
Still, the school has been creative with its spending and negotiated with organic vendors to be able to buy enough organic produce to serve once a week.
“These kids have to eat well,” Hidalgo said, “and we know that organic food is more nutritious.”
The Sustainable Schools Project provides funds for schools to start their gardens and hold activities like organic farmers’ markets and talks on the benefits of organics, but not to purchase organic produce, García explained.
He said he hopes to find additional funding from foreign embassies or other organizations to buy more organic foods as the project hopefully expands to include more schools next year.
For more information on the Sustainable Schools Project or to contribute, call García at 367-1122.