MASFRIJOL: Spreading message for better health in Guatemalan highlands

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Luis Flores (view larger image)

The Mayan population in Guatemala’s western highlands is one of the most undernourished in the world, with children there suffering high rates of stunting. A well-established indicator of early childhood malnutrition, stunting can affect cognitive development and productivity as well as increase the likelihood for heart disease, diabetes, kidney damage and anemia into adulthood.

Beans, a nutrient-dense food with a high percentage of protein, may seem a likely answer to remedy Guatemala’s malnutrition problem, but the solution isn’t quite that straightforward.

Local farmers don’t grow enough beans to meet the nutritional needs of the people. Limited access to farmland and elevations greater than 2,500 meters above sea level make bean production difficult.

Maize, beans and squash – also known as the “three sisters of agriculture” – are grown in the highlands, and they’re eaten in disproportionate amounts for proper nutrition. The ratio of maize to bean consumption is 97:3 for most households. A diet this high in corn does not provide the necessary protein and other nutrients to promote healthy growth and development.

“To achieve a high-quality protein — equivalent to that of meat — the recommended corn-to-bean consumption ratio should be 70:30,” said Sharon Hoerr, a nutritionist with MASFRIJOL and professor emerita from the Michigan State University (MSU) Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. “A high-quality protein contains the nine essential amino acids that humans must get from food for proper nutrition, health and growth. Beans and maize both contain incomplete proteins; if combined during the same day, however, they form an excellent high-quality protein.”

Critical problems also lie in the population’s limited understanding of the nutritional value of beans,
which are often dismissed in favor of processed foods. Consequently, beans are not always consumed when they’re available. Instead, farm families frequently sell their beans to purchase less nutritional foods.

Furthermore, poor farmers possess limited means to safely store beans for more than a month or two. Open plastic containers attract weevils and other insect pests that can quickly devastate a harvest, making beans, at best, a seasonal food source.

Enter MASFRIJOL

In 2013, Irvin Widders, professor in the MSU Department of Horticulture and director of the Feed the Future Legume Innovation Lab (LIL), and Luis Flores, assistant professor in the MSU Department of Community Sustainability and MASFRIJOL project principal investigator, proposed a project to address the problems facing Guatemala. They realized that improving nutrition in the western highlands required the following goals:

  • Increasing bean yields.
  • Increasing bean consumption.
  • Improving nutrition education, especially about the long-term health benefits of proper nutrition.

A year later, in 2014, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and USAID’s Guatemala Mission awarded funds to the LIL to initiate MASFRIJOL, Spanish for “more beans.” The project is a four-year Associate Award to the Leader Award for the LIL to increase bean consumption in the Western Highlands through agricultural interventions and nutrition education.

MASFRIJOL began its work by providing 15,000 smallholder farmers each with 5 pounds of high-quality seed of improved, disease-resistant bean varieties adapted to the unique agroecology of the region. These altitude-appropriate varieties – ICTA Hunapú, ICTA Superchiva and ICTA Altense – were developed by the Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology (Instituto de Ciencia y Tecnología Agrícola [ICTA]) to improve bean yields in the inhospitable, high-altitude elevations of the region.

Through its collaboration with the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture (Ministerio de Agricultura, Ganadería y Alimentación), the project also provides farmers training on soil preparation, seed germination and safe bean storage postharvest. The training helps farmers improve their integrated crop management, enabling them to grow more beans on their land and safely store the increased yields long-term. As a result, beans can last up to six months after harvest.

“By relying on the expertise of established public and private sector agencies and organizations in the region, MASFRIJOL has been able to extend its impact to reach greater numbers of farmers in even the most remote areas of the highlands,” said Salvador Castellanos, national director of the Guatemala MASFRIJOL office. “The partnerships have effectively linked the agriculture and nutrition education activities to ensure that farming families are not only growing more beans but eating more of the beans they’ve grown.”

To support these lessons and facilitate technology adoption, MASFRIJOL’s training team has developed technical guides and videos that focus on key training messages.

“Key messages are limited to three to five per topic, so farmers and families can remember to put them into practice at home,” said Celina Wille, MASFRIJOL agricultural extension specialist and MSU assistant professor of community sustainability. “We don’t want to overwhelm them with too much information but build on the knowledge they have — and then lead them to new skills for growing and consuming more beans.

“For example, in our training on seed storage — one of 15 training modules offered through MASFRIJOL — we make sure participants understand exactly how to use special plastic bags to store and preserve their grain for six to 12 months, and that optimal seed humidity for bean storage is less than 14 percent. The science behind these principles is interesting, but the farmers don’t need to understand such details to use the bags, so training doesn’t emphasize them. We focus on practical skills that can be easily applied.”

And applied they are. Many farmers who had become used to inferior seed quality and assumed that beans were difficult and risky to produce have reported twofold bean yield increases. And most are saving beans for family consumption and the next planting season instead of selling them.

Safe storage is critical to ensuring increased bean consumption beyond the month or two after harvest. Weevils, which are attracted to open containers of beans, are the main threat to bean quality and can destroy a stored harvest in a month. GrainPro storage bags, which are made of three extruded layers of a special plastic material and distributed through MASFRIJOL, have helped prevent the infiltration of weevils and other pests into stored beans.

Locally operated community seed depots are also being developed to ensure that quality planting seeds will continue to be available to farmers who are unable to save seed from harvest because of unexpected agricultural challenges or other problems.

Nutrition Education

Within months of the improved seed distribution and crop management education, MASFRIJOL, working with the Guatemalan Ministry of Health (Ministerio de Salud Pública de Guatemala), began establishing nutrition education programs to increase the understanding of the link between regular consumption of beans with maize and improved health.

With its partners, MASFRIJOL has developed culture-sensitive educational materials that accommodate the literacy and language barriers of the target populations, including a coloring book for children focused on making healthy food choices. Lessons include dietary information designed for both the general adult population and the more vulnerable populations of women of childbearing age and young children.

Bean and nutrition fairs are held to unite communities and raise awareness of the importance of bean consumption. Held in open fields or community markets, educational activities include informational and instructional videos, taste testing, recipe contests and projects that engage community members directly. A video on protein complementarity, for example, is followed by a discussion on how to proportionally integrate maize and beans into favorite recipes.

Other teaching programs focus on the dietary health of children, including how to make a bean-based formula for young children to replace atole, a maize-sugar beverage given to infants that provides calories but little nutrition. They also include instruction and practice on how to prepare an appetizing bean-based porridge often enjoyed by young children.

Two years after its formation, MASFRIJOL reports that:

  • Families consume more beans at family meals (at least three times a week).
  • Infants and children younger than 5 years are being fed more beans on a daily basis instead of a predominantly maize-based diet.
  • Families are learning to measure how many pounds of beans they need per week to meet their food requirements.

Although there is more work to do and more people to reach, MASFRIJOL is succeeding in its project goals. Families are growing and eating more beans and sharing them with neighbors. MASFRIJOL teams have empowered communities to manage improved varieties on a sustainable basis and implement technologies and practices to grow and consume more beans in the future.

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