Nurturing life where nothing grows

How a woman’s efforts to support school gardens are empowering women and improving children’s nutrition and prospects in a semi-desertic area of Bolivia

The small, quiet town of Entre Ríos in the south of Bolivia lies in a semi-desertic area where only native plants survive because, as the locals say, “it is hard to nurture life here”.

“Here I have 8th months and as you can see my joy were the plants” Photo: Family Archive
“I have always been happy around plants” Photo: Velasco family archive

One of the locals, however, has a different vision: she sees this a place where vegetables can grow and feed the community — including through nutritious school meals. Born in the Guaraní community of La Cahuarina, Darlen Velasco grew up surrounded by nature. “I have always been happy around plants,” she says, showing a photo of her 8-month-old self, smiling broadly as she sits next to a potted plant.

When she was 7, she lived an experience she would never forget — and that would change her life: the first school garden in the municipality was created at her school. Seeing vegetables that she had never eaten being grown and cooked for her lunch was one of the main reasons that led her to become an agronomist.

Darlen is one of the few educated woman that came back to her community to follow her dreams. With the knowledge achieved in University she is now supporting local women’s organizations to produce vegetables to improve the diet of their own families and incomes as they are seeking to become part of new markets. “I wanted to share my knowledge with them and create new know-how,” she says. As more and more women are looking for her support, she has become a role model in her municipality.

According to UN Women, eight out of 10 women in rural Bolivia still live in poverty, and gender inequality is prevalent in the country, with the widest gaps in rural areas. 23.6% of women living in rural areas have no education at all and 43.1% have only completed primary education. School meals are fundamental to keep girls in school and improve these rates. Most rural women work in farming or cattle raising, but their productivity is low due to the burden of work, domestic chores and caring for children and elderly at home.

At 21 Darlen joined as a volunteer the Assembly of the Guaraní People to support the activities and projects of 36 indigenous communities and graduated as an Engineer in Agronomy from the University Mayor de San Simón in Cochabamba. Photos: Darlen Velasco archive.

All of her efforts have are now at disposition of the Entre Ríos Municipality where Darlen has been the driving force behind the implementation of 53 school gardens in as many communities. This has strengthened the food and nutritional security of young girls and adolescents, enabling them to continue their studies and also receive training in basic agricultural tasks and management while improving their intake of vitamins and minerals. With women in Bolivia suffering from high rates of anaemia, an iron-rich diet is particularly important for them.

“When you meet Darlen, you realize the importance on supporting woman like her. When you support women with big dreams, commitment, and clear objectives, it not only benefits one person but several as it has a multiplier effect in the community. Woman and girls see how the effort and education are key to a stable future and better living conditions.” Says Kyung-Nan Park, World Food Programme (WFP) Deputy Regional Director for Latin America.

Given the lack of funds in the municipality, building alliances with a variety of partners — including WFP — was key to secure budgets to acquire seeds, tools and fertilizers, and to support participating schools with technical assistance.

School gardens help children have varied and nutritious diets. Photos: Municipality of O’connor of Entre Ríos

As a woman, Darlen has faced many inequalities but she demonstrated that, through education, women can achieve economic and social equality, as well as a world free of hunger. The school gardens are having a multiplier effect in the community: many women are now asking Darlen for more training and support so that they can have their own vegetable production to strengthen their families’ income and diversify their diets.

“Darlen is the living example of how — in this country and elsewhere in the world — empowered women are central to the achievement of sustainable communities and a hunger-free world,” says Sergio Torres, WFP’s Head of Programme in Bolivia.

Eating vegetables grown in her school’s own garden inspired Darlen to become an agronomist and return to her community to share her knowledge. Photo: Darlen Velasco archive (L); WFP/Morelia Eróstegui (R)

In Bolivia, WFP works to support communities in the fight against all forms of malnutrition in pursuit of Sustainable Development Objective 2: Zero Hunger. One of the main objectives is to strengthen the capacities of smallholder farmers to help them connect with food-based social protection programs such as school feeding, which contributes to better nutrition and enhanced school attendance and performance. This objective prioritizes woman associations that are recipients of workshops to improve their products and capacities. Support of school gardens is part of this initiative that looks to improve the dietary diversity of children and also contributes to the sustainability of the school meals projects in the municipality.

Learn more about WFP’s work in Bolivia

World Food Programme Insight

Insight by The World Food Programme

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store