Preserving a Balanced Diet with Solar Dryers
- The Caribbean, Eastern Caribbean
In the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda, Peace Corps Response Volunteer Elyse Petersen worked with agroprocessors, schools, and families to build solar food dryers that can preserve local produce for year-round consumption.
Aloha, my name is Elyse Petersen and I served as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Antigua and Barbuda in the Eastern Caribbean. It was a beautiful location with a rich culture, but I had a big job to do. As a trained food scientist, I was asked to assess the food preservation situation and provide technical assistance that would help develop agriculture, nutrition, and agro processing.
I saw that Antigua and Barbuda had a tremendous potential to grow fruits and vegetables and to catch fish, but there were only a few preservation methods available to maintain the supply of seasonal produce throughout the year. This problem had traditionally caused the country to suffer from glut, or overproduction of produce that can't be consumed, therefore going to waste. Large quantities of tropical fruits and vegetables can be seen during their particular season, but can hardly be found when they're out of season. This often leads to unbalanced diets and nutritional deficiencies. The few food preservation methods available all had high energy and production costs, which made them difficult for families to use.
From my work with agro processors who made pepper sauce, jam, jelly, guava cheese, and other products on the island, I saw that there was great potential to utilize the sun for processing food. With the help of a group of students from Kansas State University, a solar dryer was developed specifically for Antigua and Barbuda, which could be constructed with local materials for minimal cost, between $50-100.
Using a solar dryer is an affordable and easy way to preserve what produce you can't consume right away. The dryer is designed from a wooden frame which is covered in plastic. This plastic allows the sun?s rays to hit the food and at the same time insulate the solar heat. This increase in temperature in the dryer plays a key role in altering the humidity of the air and quickly drying out the food. If processed properly, fruits such as mango can be stored and eaten for up to a year after processing.
Mango isn't all these dryers can process; they also can be used for papaya, banana, carrots, tomato, peppers, fish, and even meat. These products do not require refrigeration and can be eaten as is, or put into other recipes such as cakes, breads, trail mix, and ice cream. Fruits can be pureed, mixed, and dried to form fruit leathers, like an all-natural fruit roll-up.Vegetables can easily be reconstituted in soups and sauces. Dried peppers can be crushed down to the styles of pepper we put on pizza, and or pounded down to a powder used in spices blends for cooking.
Really, what this means is, Antiguans can now be eating local mango in February when they are completely out of season- mango from their own trees. This could have the potential to significantly improve common nutritional deficiencies among children, because they can eat produce with necessary vitamins and minerals throughout the year.
The solar dryers we built were modeled after a cooperative started out of Uganda called Fruits of the Nile. To kick start the project, I worked with the Ministry of Education to integrate these dryers into the school curriculum, involving the Industrial Arts, Agriculture Science, Home Economics, and Business departments. Every student in these disciplines is now somehow involved in the construction, use, and marketing of solar dryers. The funds that are generated from the work go back to the schools to purchase more materials and make more dryers.
Eleven dryers were constructed at various secondary schools on the island, which are now used to process surplus fruits and vegetables from the schools' gardens. With the help of a local non-government agency, the Inter-American Institute for the Cooperation of Agriculture, we held three workshops with agro-processors and home economics teachers to display the principles of solar drying and the specifics of the dryers that were built at the schools. There is now enough awareness in the community that the schools can easily sell the dryers that are constructed every year by the students.
These dryers are intended more for commercial use, but a smaller version of the dryer was designed which requires less material that is ideal for home use. We know that there are many members of the community that have beautiful mango trees in their yards which fruit nicely every year. After a big harvest, the family is obligated to eat what they can and give to friends what they can't, but many times fruit goes to waste. By the end of the project, we calculated that the project directly affected 17% of the entire population of the country with a potential of continued impact because of the schools' involvement. Children who were involved in the project were not only empowered to teach their families how to preserve produce, but they learned how to collaborate with other disciplines and make a business from their own efforts.
Another key success factor was the open communication that was formed using tools like the Internet and social media. We started a Facebook page to share pictures and information. My friends who donated to help start the project were also able to watch the progress. Since I left Antigua and Barbuda, many other communities in the Caribbean have contacted us. From the website that was created by one of the participants of the project in Antigua, individuals from St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Grenada, Belize, Trinidad, Jamaica, and Haiti have been able to access pictures and a manual on how to build and use the dryers in their communities.
This project has been a turning point in my life because it made me realize the importance of relationship building and collaboration. Now that I am back in the U.S., I hope to spread the same knowledge to my community in Hawaii. I am currently working with many groups to bring this to the curriculum to high schools and empower Hawaii's youth to better connect with their environment. Because the knowledge is easy to spread, the possibilities of this project are endless. Maybe one day you will build a solar dryer for your family!