Nourishing Bodies and Minds in Barrio La Paz: School Cafeteria SPA Grant Project

By Laura Zoellner
Feb. 19, 2019

Barrio La Paz is a socioeconomically marginalized yet growing area of my site with a population of 70 families. Most adult men in La Paz work in seasonal labor or in the surrounding rural areas, usually in agriculture, fishing, or livestock raising. Women work in the home and some help their husbands by selling caught fish. There is a large population of adults who are illiterate and/or did not complete their education past an elementary level. 

In this barrio, there is a primary level “sede” (campus) of the school I work at that was built in 2013 and has been working to increase the number of children that attend school. The campus has minimal infrastructure – informal “ranchos” (thatched roof, open air structures) for classrooms. 

Thankfully, the school now has the aid of a Colombian NGO that provides a nutritional lunch program for the students, but La Paz’s campus previously did not have a space in which to prepare or serve the food, so a community member gave up the majority of the space in her house for this purpose. 

This is where original idea for the project was born. In a joint effort between my school’s principal and the president of La Paz’s neighborhood association, plans were drawn for a school cafeteria and kitchen. The plans provided for an optimal sized space that would be hygienic and within the campus’s perimeter. However, the construction of this space is just one objective of the overall goal of the project.

That central goal is to increase La Paz’s community members’ knowledge around three public health topics that have been prioritized in their barrio. The topics include safe food handling, proper waste management, and drug prevention among youth. 

With the support of the town’s health secretary, in late August we completed the first of three workshop series (this one being waste management), that coincide with the above mentioned health topics. By the end of the year we will complete the other two workshop series. 

After 45 days of construction beginning in early September, the kitchen and cafeteria were built. On November 2nd, we had a ceremony to celebrate its opening for use by students and the community. The idea is that the school cafeteria will serve as a multi-use meeting space when different entities, such as the workshops being carried out as a part of this project with the health secretary, bring programs to the barrio.

It has been a rewarding experience to watch all three parties (the community, the school, and the office of the health secretary) work together to achieve the goals and objectives of this project. I have taken a behind-the-scenes role in the process as much as possible (with the exception of writing the grant proposal), and the host country nationals have taken leadership of the project. This was key in promoting capacity building among the various community actors. My job has primarily been serving as a liaison to access the resources necessary to complete the project, help with communication between the different community actors, and be a figure of support as the project developed.

This barrio by many stretches has been “forgotten” when it comes to development or other community projects in comparison to other low socio-economic barrios at my site. I think for this reason, it has been a motivating and exciting experience for many community members, and for me of course, to see this cafeteria take shape. 

Almost all of the construction workers who built the cafeteria are from La Paz and are parents of students who study at the campus. They donated a part of their normal pay towards the completion of the project. Some of the workers’ wives have provided cold drinks and had a Saturday Sancocho soup meal for the workers and their families to share and socialize while seeing the advancements on the construction. Other professionals, including one of the school’s teachers who is an engineer, and the staff from the health secretary have donated their time, while other community members donated equipment for the construction. 

In the end, the community generated around 50 percent of the total cost of the project through in-kind and cash donations. 

It was a great exercise in showing the community members how far volunteering and looking for assets within one’s own community can take a project in terms of what can be accomplished, regardless of having a limited budget. In general, the impact of this project has been very positive. The community has a chance to receive training and acquire new knowledge, but they are not only receiving from the experience. They are actively involved in creating this new space that will serve many purposes both practical to the student’s nutrition program and community-wide education looking into the future. 

I am honored to have been involved in the project and be able to help convert this community’s vision into a reality.

The project above was funded through the Small Project Assistance program (SPA). SPA is a joint collaboration between USAID and the Peace Corps which allows Peace Corps Volunteers to participate with USAID in development efforts, helping communities to implement small, self-help activities, in sectors ranging from health to agriculture to small enterprise development. Click here to learn more about SPA.