Doña Nereyda is a Nicaraguan nutritionist, with more than 20 years of experience in training people in their communities with the nonprofit organization, Soynica. We are on our way with a small group of others to the training center of Acción Médica Cristiana, a partner organization of World Renew. Here, we will spend two days in a workshop with ten men and women from nearby communities to discuss food, health, local produce, and their methods of preparation.
The folks who will attend the training have been planting vegetable gardens this year for the very first time. But many don’t traditionally use vegetables in the foods they cook, so the ripe vegetables have either gone to the market or to waste—not into their family’s bellies. It goes beyond just vegetables, too.
In rural communities, cooking know-how is often passed down from grandparents and parents to children, and there is little access to education about how and why to cook balanced meals. Many of the healthier traditions from the past have been lost over the years. Today, Doña Nereyda is just the lady to explain why eating your vegetable is so important. She is 60 years old, palpably enthusiastic, and has a wealth of nutritional experience and knowledge.
I saw this firsthand the next morning as we began the training with a basic nutrition theory class. “Today, I am from Santa Luz,” Doña Nereyda emphatically announces to the room, referring to the region where the residents’ communities are located. “And we are going to learn how to make meals using what we already have in our own yards.”
With that, Nereyda launches into a discussion of the importance of eating local produce and cooking healthy meals. Producing colorful posters and telling engaging stories, she talks about the dramatic change in the Nicaraguan diet over the centuries. Before the Spanish conquest, the diet here mainly consisted of bush meat, corn, honey, nuts, fruit, vegetables, and food was cooked over fire using clay pots. With the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, new foods like pigs, shortening, rum, and new cooking materials and methods came too. In the time after the conquest, more new traditions were born, like nacatamal, gallo pinto, tajadas fritas, and carne asada. From 1979 on, a continually more-globalized world brought even more foreign products. Preservatives and artificial coloring were introduced in chips, sauces, industrially-produced tortillas, cereals, sodas, processed milk, and candies.
From here, Doña Nereyda explained the properties of different food groups, including what constitutes a healthy diet for each stage of life, how to defend against both physical and mental illnesses, facts about maternal health, and much more. As I looked around the room, I realized I wasn’t the only one drawn in by her presentation. Every person was attentive, engaged, and scribbling notes. Questions and comments soon began to pop up.
“I have a lot of dragon-fruit growing on my property, what are some ways I can use it?”
“We used to let the lemons from our tree rot because we never knew about their nutritional properties—then we’d use our extra cash to buy soda.”
“A lot of the women in the community talk about how much they dislike vegetables—carrots, radishes, beets. They don’t understand why they are important to eat. I’m grateful to be here today to learn why they are, so I can go back to my community and share this.”
It soon became apparent how food is something that connects us all. Everyone had an experience of their own to share about cooking, feeding their children, or learning certain customs or habits.
In the afternoons, we took the class outside to a wood-burning stove and a long table where Doña Nereyda spread out some ingredients. She called out instructions, and soon everyone had a job chopping, peeling, sifting, grinding, or stirring away. We learned how to make an array of dishes using local ingredients, including the tuna cactus and passion fruit, bananas, coconuts, rice, beans, eggs, foliar extract from leaves, and more.
Most of the recipes were an alternative take on what are now traditional Nicaraguan dishes. Although they were slightly different from the norm, most people were enthusiastic about the new variations and agreed that they even tasted good! We cooked, laughed, learned, and tasted—and everyone went home with new recipes, facts, and encouragement to share with their families and neighbors.
On Friday, we found ourselves packing up the car, saying goodbye and setting out on the long road back home. As we began our descent down the curving mountain road, I heard Doña Nereyda say from the backseat, “Would you look at all those mangos on that tree? And all going to waste! What a shame!”
Global Volunteer Program
World Renew Nicaragua