El Salvador: Women spread the word on food safety

April 2015

Every day Rosameli Rodríguez tends her family’s garden plot. She grows a variety of fruits and vegetables, including the essential ingredients for preparing typical El Salvadorian meals: tomatoes, leafy greens and beans. She grows the vegetables under a mesh to protect them from contamination by birds or animals. Nevertheless, before preparing the vegetables for her family’s meals, she takes steps necessary to make certain they are free of potentially dangerous germs.

Rosameli Rodríguez tends her tomato plants that are covered in mesh for protection against animals and birds, El Salvador.

Growing her own food and making sure that food is safe are relatively new skills for Rodriguez. In 2013 she participated in an educational programme supported by WHO, working in collaboration with El Salvador’s government and other United Nations partner Organizations: the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UNICEF, UNWomen, and the World Food Programme (WFP).

“It has taught us a lot because we learn hygiene practices to grow fruits and vegetables, and with that we avoid many diseases,” she says.

“It has taught us a lot because we learn hygiene practices to grow fruits and vegetables, and with that we avoid many diseases.”

Rosameli Rodríguez

The educational programme has sought to address two issues in El Salvador: foodborne illness and poor nutrition by educating the local women who were identified as the people most likely to pass on their knowledge to other people in their communities. One in 10 people in El Salvador lives on less than US$ 2 a day, making it hard to buy food, and a large proportion of the population lacks sufficient education about nutrition.

That is why the country’s government and WHO are encouraging people to grow food themselves to diversify their diet and have a balanced nutritional intake. “This is an important step for improving nutrition. However, if people are going to grow their own fruits and vegetables, they have to be safe,” says Dr Enrique Perez-Gutierrez, a Senior Advisor in Foodborne and Zoonotic Diseases at the WHO Regional Office for the Americas.

Five keys to growing safer fruits and vegetables

Rodriguez and other women who have participated in the programme were taught the Five keys to growing safer fruits and vegetables recommended by WHO:

  • practice good personal hygiene
  • protect fields from animal faecal contamination
  • use treated faecal waste
  • evaluate and manage risks from irrigation water
  • keep harvest and storage equipment clean and dry.

The women also learned simple tips that can have a big impact on food safety. “We used to wash cooking equipment with water that was not safe. Now we add a few drops of bleach to make it cleaner,” says Gloria Delgado, another participant in the training programme.

To prepare for the village workshops, there were two ‘train the trainers’ workshops held in 2013, to train health promoters, that went on to educate the women in rural villages not only on how to take care of their own families, but also how to host their own educational workshops. “We chose to invite women to take on this role, because they play a vital role in education, especially in the area of food preparation and safety,” says Dr José Ruales, WHO Representative to El Salvador.

Foodborne diseases decreased over a year

WHO staff from the El Salvador country office did an evaluation in the villages in 2014, a year after the first workshops took place. Over the course of a year, staff members went from house to house conducting a prospective study measuring acute gastroenteritis, also known as stomach flu.

They found that foodborne diseases had decreased because people were putting into practice the WHO Five keys to growing safer fruits and vegetables. Families that applied the Five keys at home reduced their chances of getting diarrhoea by 60% compared to families in communities where these safety and hygiene measures were not applied. They also found that families in areas where the programme was implemented had begun to eat a wider range of fruits and vegetables – leading to improved nutrition.