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How Ecuador Has Found the Antidote to Rising Food Prices

Ever since the country adopted the US dollar as its official currency in 2000, Ecuadorians have suffered rising food prices along with hunger and malnourishment.

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Her organization also aims to create stability — a word not typically associated with Ecuador, which gained independence from Spain in 1822 and has suffered instability off and on ever since. In 1999, a severe banking and economic crisis ravaged the country, prompting dollarization. While this change may have stabilized the nation’s economy, it also increased food prices as salaries stayed the same. “One day I was paid in sucre, the next in dollars,” says Alexandra Rodriquez, who manages CONQUITO’s agriculture program. “What I earned in sucre was then divided up by 25,000, which in turn was only worth $1. I basically earned nothing, but food still cost the same. Those were difficult times.”

In 2007, leftist economist Rafael Correa became president promising a “Citizen’s Revolution.” His administration increased spending on housing, health care, and other social programs, and Correa is now the country’s longest-serving president since 1979. The government also passed its 20th constitution in 2008, which happens to be the first in the world to recognize the rights of nature.

But for many Ecuadorians, Correa’s reforms are slow to improve their daily lives. While poverty has decreased, 28.6 percent of residents still live below the poverty line. That’s compared to 15.1 percent of Americans living in poverty in 2010. The country has a chronic malnutrition rate of about 26 percent, with Indigenous people, Colombian refugees, and children especially vulnerable, according to the United Nations World Food Programme. In 2011, Correa announced his government’s intentions to eradicate malnutrition by 2015.

Meanwhile, on the rooftop of a poor school in south Quito, the focus — at least for these kids — is on proudly showing off the radishes they’ve grown. “We can see the whole natural process and we can harvest it ourselves,” says 12-year-old Nicole Serlad, in Spanish. “I like that the lettuce goes from small to really big and we make sandwiches with it.” Many of the children say they didn’t particularly care for vegetables until recently. Now they grow radishes, lettuce, cilantro, onions, tomatoes, and more, which they harvest for homemade soups and sandwiches. Lessons from growing organically even inspired a school-wide slogan: “We try to live in a world without chemicals.” The kids have also become staunch recyclers, turning plastic soda bottles into watering cans and leftover food scraps into compost.

As 12-year-old Marco Lopez waters plants using a refashioned soda bottle on this summer day, Amanda Haas, a 21-year-old American the children nicknamed Senorita Gringa, helps wrap the greenhouse in plastic. “When the kids work with it, it has more meaning for them,” she says. “And we’ll leave tools for them to have. The plastic will need to be replaced in a few years and we’ll teach them how to maintain it, so we don’t have to come back.”

‘The community decides’

Rodriquez sits at a desk in an open office on the second floor of an expansive building called the Knowledge Factory where she runs the Participatory Urban Agriculture Project. “The community decides they want to do this and they reach out to CONQUITO,” she says. In addition to providing training, technical assistance, materials, tools, and microcredits, her staff teaches growers how to pickle and can food and achieve organic certification. CONQUITO connects these growers with roughly a dozen farmer’s markets throughout the city where they earn money from their harvests.

The project relies heavily on alliances with other groups including Triple Salto, on monetary donations, and on the labor of international volunteers who perform critical tasks such as wrapping a greenhouse on the rooftop of a school in mesh and plastic. This keeps the inside temperature uniform year-round and blocks out wind, explains 21-year-old Daniel Block, a global studies and economics major at UCLA. “This is sustainable,” he says, motioning to Escuela Bogota’s greenhouse. “The community is part of it and there are people here to take care of it after we leave. We don’t just dig a well and leave and the well caves in.”

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