Belize Sows Seeds for Food Security

Abib Palma, an extension officer for the developmental organization Plenty Belize, guides school garden programs designed to educate young people about how to grow their own organic supplemental vegetables at home.  “It’s easier to reach younger kids at school than going out to the farms and teaching older folks how to farm,” he says.


Abib Palma: Food Security Officer

In January, singer Andy Palacio, a national hero in Belize and a UNESCO Artist for Peace died unexpectedly from a stroke, heart attack and respiratory failure. News accounts reported that what had actually struck Palacio down was a silent, creeping killer: a dangerously high cholesterol level.  

Palacio was revered for catapulting the Garifuna culture in Belize onto the world stage. But while Palacio’s life spoke for a people, his death spoke for the health of a nation, highlighting the increasing rates of heart disease, diabetes and high cholesterol among Belizeans.  

The national diet of Belize – high fat, high starch and few vegetables – is largely attributed to the growing health epidemic.

“Vegetables in general are skipped out of the Belizean diet,” said Mark Miller, executive director of the development organization Plenty Belize. “Most of the cultures here used to have a much healthier way of eating than they do today. As time progresses, people are eating less and less healthy.”

But getting a country’s attention about changing their eating habits hasn’t been easy.

“Your food choices today don’t get you sick today. It’s a long-term thing,” said Miller.

So Miller and Plenty Belize have decided to make a long-term investment, turning their focus to Belize‘s youngest generations. In 2002, the organization started a school garden program in Belize‘s southernmost Toledo District. The gardens are designed to educate young people about how to grow their own organic supplemental vegetables at home.  

Abib Palma, an extension officer for Plenty who guides many of the school garden programs, said, “It’s easier to reach younger kids at school than going out to the farms and teaching older folks how to farm.” 

Along with basic gardening tips, Palma instructs young people about why fresh vegetables are even needed in a daily diet. “I educate them about what it does for their health,” said Palma. “I tell them, ‘Look ahead of you. How long do you want to live?'”  

But for every kid eager to sow a seed, there are others who rebuff the program.

“Kids at school don’t want to touch the soil because they’re afraid of getting dirty,” said Palma.   

For a country steeped in agricultural tradition, this new-found aversion to “growing your own,” and the nutritional impacts that follow a green-less diet, are deeply troubling.

Yet it isn’t just that children don’t want dirt under their nails; turns out, there are many reasons why veggies don’t make it to the Belizean menu – the transition to a local cash economy for many small farmers, the pressures of the global economy, the influence of Western culture, and the growing idea that vegetables are "poor people’s food."   

The Shift 

Both Palma and Miller can’t say for certain why fresh vegetables in Belize have been relegated to the backburner, but they have their theories.  

One theory for this shift is a transition to a cash-based economy. Miller says families now need cash to participate in the economy, and to, for instance, send their children to school.   

“Public schools require that you have pens and paper and books and uniforms, which requires cash,” Miller said. “So now the person who used to grow the vegetables goes out, leaves their village, and does construction work to go make cash money. They can leave their corn, their beans, their rice, and their staples and come back and harvest, but that’s not true with a vegetable garden. So there went the vegetables.”  

It isn’t just keeping their kids in school that has farmers traveling to town for work. Because of many disastrous trade agreements forged by the U.S., farmers can no longer make wages that allow them to work solely on the farm, where they could cultivate supplemental gardens.   

Palma grew up on the family farm, where he said times were tough, but there was always healthy food on the table. Now, he says very few farmers are growing anything beyond several staple crops – corn, rice and beans. If families eat fresh vegetables, they’re generally coming from nearby towns, not the local villages, and many are imported from abroad.  

And while trade agreements make it cheaper to import food, outside cultures, particularly American, have infiltrated the Belizean psyche. “You’ve got cable TV with commercials for fast food, junk food, microwave, food that comes in a box and a can,” said Miller.  

Browse any supermarket in Belize and notice one thing missing – a produce section. A majority of the shelves are stocked with processed and canned foods. And eating these foods instead of backyard vegetables, says Miller, has become a sign of prosperity.   

“The thoughts are, ‘Rich people buy food at the shop. Poor people grow their own food. We don’t eat them because we’re not poor anymore. Ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese, a can of Vienna sausages – that is high living. Fresh pork with callaloo and pineapple from you back yard, no that’s for poor people.'” 

Health is Wealth 

Gomier Longville owns the only vegetarian restaurant in Punta Gorda, the biggest town in Southern Belize. His business relies almost solely on tourists looking for a break from rice, beans and stewed chicken. He thinks his sign, “Health is Wealth,” scares away local diners.  

“A lot of people think that eating healthy is eating things without taste,” said Longville. “People are just used to eating cabbage and carrots, and just saturate them with mayonnaise.” 

Longville, a long-time food activist in Belize, has been trying to convince people that healthy food can be just as tasty. He makes his own tofu, and holds cooking workshops. But in his eleven years of running his restaurant, he’s been discouraged to see the decline in the Belizean diet, and in people’s overall health.  

“People use a lot of shortening,” said Longville. “It’s the cheapest fat and you can use it again. People eat a lot of white bread, a lot of white rice. Everything has sugar in it. There’s not enough fiber in their diet. I’m the only restaurant that offers a little salad without you ordering it.” 

Longville said that people don’t often change their diet until it’s too late and they become ill. “So why don’t we always eat a special diet so we can sustain life? We need to do preventative eating.”  

But until preventative eating becomes mainstream, Miller says the country’s diet is having a deep and lasting impact on its population.

“There’s a lack of micronutrients, so people have weak immune systems,” he said. “So there’s a lot more sickness, days off from work, people not feeling well, and failure to fight off basic illnesses.”  

Institutionalizing Health 

There are currently 31 schools participating in Plenty’s organic school garden program. A flyer that promotes the program says its goals are manifold: reducing the need to clear new land for crops by maintaining organic soil; decreasing poverty levels by reducing farming costs associated with agricultural chemicals; and improving malnutrition and food security.  

But most importantly, Plenty hopes they’re planting more than just a tomato seed.

“Diet is very strongly influenced by the way you grew up and what you ate,” said Miller. “To go to someone my age is not going to get a lot of people to change. But if you work on it from a young age, there’s a chance of making a lasting impact.” 

Plenty is also organizing a spin-off project – a home garden contest for students currently working on the school gardens. There are 120 homes involved, which Miller says is creating “family food security” and “village food security.” 

Despite its successes, the school garden program is not mandatory, and Plenty has been lobbying the Ministry of Education to integrate the program into that national curriculum.  

“We’re hoping that the concept of organic school gardens is institutionalized so that becomes a norm that we teach our children, and that talking about our food, food supply and health comes as a regular part of what is done,” said Miller. “Whether [kids] grow their own food, or they appreciate where their food comes from, it gives them the ability to make better choices.”

See more information about Plenty Belize. Contact Plenty Belize:

Megan Tady is a freelance journalist based in Western Massachusetts.