Thursday, 8 July 2010

Veggie Magic ... or Hydroponics?

Whether or not you believe in climate change, you can’t deny that the environment around some of the world’s poorest cities is being significantly hurt by human activity. This is the case in San Jose, capital city of Costa Rica, where high-yield agriculture in the countryside is resulting in dirty rivers, and rapid city growth is causing deforestation and soil erosion. For a child living in the slums of San Jose, this translates to an unstable home and little access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Fact: The World Bank estimates that by 2013, two-thirds of Latin America’s poor will be living in cities. That's a lot of crowds.

Another fact: 20 of Latin America’s largest cities are built on steep hills that are prone to landslides and flooding during the rainy season. One of these is San Jose.

People who can’t afford good housing live on these dangerous slopes. This means that the 42% of children in San Jose’s slums who are already struggling to avoid child labour, gangs and life on the streets also have to contend with scarce land and poor soil quality. What does poor soil quality have to do with children at risk? Well, poor soil grows poor vegetables … and we all know how important vegetables are for helping kids to grow up big and strong. Sadly this problem will only get worse as more and more poor rural families move into the big city to look for work.

Viva’s city-wide network of projects in San Jose has developed a feeding centre initiative. (See Viva’s previous blog on feeding centres.) Feeding centres are located in inner-city churches and staffed by local volunteers. Children can come here for a healthy breakfast and lunch, and they can also leave their little siblings for free child care while they attend to important business of their own, like school!

In fact, in this way feeding centres have made it possible for many inner-city kids to attend school who couldn’t before because they had to care for younger siblings. And because many children who do attend school don’t get proper meals, feeding centres have been a good way to boost grades. You’ll understand if you’ve ever gone to class hungry and tried to concentrate: to be a good student you need good food.

The feeding centres aren’t just offering great meals and babysitting, though. Five of them have started their own hydroponic vegetable gardens! Hydroponics is the perfect answer to the lack of gardening space in San Jose’s slums, because it doesn’t require soil to grow great vegetables and can be done in a tight spot.

What is hydroponics? It’s a way of growing vegetables (or any plant) without soil. Instead, you dangle the roots into water and add a fertiliser solution that gives the plant everything it needs to produce big juicy vegetables. Hydroponic-lovers claim that hydroponically-grown vegetables actually bear better vegetables, because the plant can focus on its produce rather than on sucking nutrients through dense soil – which apparently is hard work for a plant.

On top of that, hydroponic plants can be stacked while they grow, thanks to their lack of soil. This saves lots of space, which is always great in a tight urban environment.

Not only are these hydroponic vegetable gardens putting healthy, nutritious veggies on kids’ plates twice a day, they’re also helping the feeding centres along the road to self-sufficiency. Obviously getting your ingredients for free is better than paying for them, no matter what a good discount compassionate local businesses offer. And offer they have: large local grocers give feeding centres a great deal on staple foods. It’s wonderful to see the whole community get involved in helping feed kids and send them to school. At Viva, our whole mission revolves around getting churches, schools, projects and individual members of the community to work together to help children at risk. Feeding centres are a perfect example of a network at its best.

Who loves the feeding centres’ strange vegetable gardens the most? The kids! It’s a great way to help them understand nutrition, learn how to grow a vegetable garden, and have a real-life science experiment all at once, by getting the kids involved in growing and taking care of the vegetables destined for their plates.

Hundreds of kids now know how to grow their own vegetables without depleting the scarce soil of San Jose’s slippery slopes. Our hope is that they’ll take this knowledge – along with the education feeding centres make possible by providing day care and healthy food – and use it to improve San Jose’s long-term sustainability.

Learn more about feeding centres at


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