Mary is empowering rural communities to better their physical, psychological, and financial health. By using an integrative development model with a focus on female empowerment, the organization employs scientific research to promote the consumption and supply of local products. Mary is using amaranth, a plant endemic to Mexico with high nutritional content, to join these elements together in a holistic and innovative initiative.
The New Idea
Mary’s approach to community development is innovative in its focus on scientific research and the use of a single, local product to address multiple problems plaguing impoverished, rural communities in Mexico. After leading scientific studies, Mary and a team of scientists proved that amaranth consumption reduces cholesterol and prevents cancer and tumor proliferation. Moreover, amaranth is a substitute for milk and meat, expensive products that are often not affordable for impoverished families. As an added benefit, the high levels of tryptophan in amaranth have been proven to promote happiness in amaranth-consumers. Mary therefore uses amaranth as a way to improve the poor nutritional conditions and overall health of rural communities in Mexico.
Mary and México Tierra de Amaranto (MTA) also use this endemic seed to strengthen psychological health in rural, impoverished communities where economic concerns and migration patterns weigh heavily on community members’ self-esteem and motivation. This part of MTA’s approach is focused on empowering community members to realize that they can, in fact, feed themselves healthily and make financially valuable products without migrating abroad or resorting to extreme measures. MTA’s activities foster autonomy, a communal sense of belonging, competence, community engagement, and locally appropriate approaches to development.
This idea is framed as reclaiming an ancient grain; amaranth was very important to Aztec civilization, so this historically-based local acceptance of the grain’s value feeds community members’ minds as well as their bodies. More than a traditional economic development program, the MTA team focuses on empowerment and self-assurance in its communities, lauding local strengths and using an asset-based community development approach. Mary also works in collaboration with psychologists to cultivate an atmosphere of self-value and teamwork. MTA helps participants to learn about empathy, teamwork, and leadership for change by creating self-esteem and solidarity in the group, which in turn encourages well-established projects to take root.
MTA also focuses on impacting the financial health of the community with which it works. The goal of this programming is to help women realize their own capacities and then provide them with technical training on amaranth cultivation. This technical training provides information about amaranth’s nutritional value as well as assistance in planting backyard crops for individual family consumption. As women advance in the program, they are encouraged to cultivate surplus amaranth for sale to MTA. MTA then buys this surplus and, in alliance with culinary institutes, develops innovative and culturally adapted recipes for commonly consumed foods like tortillas and soup. These products are distributed in different stores in a number of areas. MTA also has training programs that enable women who excelled in the human development program and have proven their support for social interventions to become local entrepreneurs and create different amaranth-centric projects like bakeries or greenhouses. MTA’s alliance with culinary institutes also allows for MTA participants to have access to additional technical training. Women in the MTA program can obtain an MTA Certification as cooking instructors or development promoters, further facilitating their professional growth.
In Mexico, malnutrition is a paradoxical epidemic in which a large subset of the population suffers from food scarcity and an even larger group struggles with malnutrition and/or obesity brought on by plentiful supply of unhealthy food. This phenomenon has caused substantial economic and social issues that affect a large part of Mexico’s rural population. Recent estimates suggest that up to 20 million Mexicans live with extreme food scarcity. One-fifth of Mexican children suffer from chronic malnutrition. This issue is especially prevalent in rural regions plagued by the effects of international agricultural competition and climate change, both of which dramatically eliminate jobs and farming opportunities. To make matters worse, Mexico has also become a large consumer of processed foods. Today’s Mexicans consume an average of 172 liters per capita of Coke annually, compared to the 1991 level of 69 liters per capita, and 50 grams per capita per day of animal fat.
In addition to the negative health impact that food insecurity causes, this phenomenon also creates an atmosphere of hopelessness in the Mexican countryside as community members contend with poverty, violence, corruption, health issues, and more. These many challenges contribute to an overall feeling of insecurity about the future, especially in rural areas where people grow up with the idea that these difficult conditions are unchangeable. All of this creates a vicious circle: poverty generates lack of confidence and self-esteem, lack of economic opportunity generates poverty, and lack of confidence leads to inaction which ends in conformism and decay of social and economic conditions. Mexico has a notoriously paternalistic culture in which people wait for the government to help them out of poverty, thus perpetuating cycles of poverty and often making abysmal living conditions permanent. It is impossible for the government to give these impoverished populations effective assistance without consistent follow-up at the community level coupled with highly mobilized community members dedicated to improving their living conditions. Government programs also do not normally incentivize local employment.
Mexico’s rural communities are also plagued by economic instability. Rural regions have lost their traditional markets for agricultural products and, consequently, their economic livelihoods. Without sufficient means to survive, rural families live with food insecurity and hunger. Meanwhile, foods with little nutritional value have become more affordable and are easily acquired. This means that close to 100% of food expenditures leave the community, so there is no reinvestment in community development or the development of the local economy. In addition, men are forced to migrate for employment opportunities. This leaves women with very little education alone to single-handedly raise their families, despite the fact that they have few job prospects to help support their families or empower themselves.
The MTA social intervention model consists of four steps that address nutrition, psychological health, and economic ills that plague impoverished communities in rural Mexico. This model ensures the consumption of essential nutrients, promotes human development, self-esteem and job creation based on consumption and cultivation of amaranth. The first step in Mary’s model is to give female participants training in human development. These workshops help women understand their own capacity as contributors to their society and community. After this step, the women then receive technical training about amaranth’s nutritional value and cultivation. Next, participants plant a backyard crop for their own family’s subsistence and participate in several cooking classes with amaranth. This integrates amaranth into participants’ daily diet without drastically changing their habits and customs. Finally, as women advance in the program they are encouraged plant surplus amaranth so that they can create various products for distribution and marketing. To date, Mary works with 374 families in 13 municipalities of Mexico. She has trained 307 producers for commercial plantings and 299 promoters and kitchen instructors. Women participating in the MTA program report not only health benefits for themselves and their families, but also that they feel more confident and have more self-esteem.
As MTA has developed, it has innovatively adapted to the challenges and needs of the communities in which it works. This flexibility has led MTA to work in water provision and productive projects. When it became apparent that water scarcity was posing a challenge to amaranth cultivation, Mary and the MTA team developed a protocol for cistern building and distribution in the communities. The local promoter receives the first cistern in the community, and then MTA participants go through a community consensus-based process to choose the other cistern recipients. MTA has also empowered female community members to become entrepreneurs capable of initiating and organizing small businesses like bakeries or greenhouses. To date, MTA has placed 52 cisterns in 11 communities and 9 productive projects.
The MTA model is completely self-sustaining and scalable because those trained in the MTA program then go on to become local promoters and trainers. To date, MTA is in 12 of 18 municipalities in the state of Querétaro and has almost 7,000 beneficiaries. MTA participants have planted 1,114 kitchen gardens in 814 communities. Mary does not engage in the day to day operations of the community programs anymore because these local trainers are running the programs on their own. Instead, Mary focuses on impacting public policy. In this arena, Mary has succeeded in establishing amaranth as a principal grain nationally. This designation allows amaranth cultivators to receive seeds from the Mexican government, thus further reducing the barriers to entry in amaranth cultivation.
Looking to the future, Mary and MTA plan to shift the focus from the nutritional viability of individual households to a larger scale vision in which amaranth is one of the most important grains in Mexico. In this vein, the organization is currently cultivating demand for amaranth by acting as the convener of actors in multiple sectors who are working with amaranth. The Monterrey Technological Institute has written a case study of amaranth used for human development and brought Mary to speak; MTA recently received a grant from the Kellogg Company to design a breakfast program using amaranth; the food industry giant BIMBO has been supportive of MTA’s goal of national and international expansion since its inception; and MTA has been collaborating with gastronomic institutes in Mexico, Ecuador, and Argentina. MTA is also partnered with ExpoFoods, a food distribution company, that is giving the organization a portion of the profits made on all amaranth-based products. With the support of Wal-Mart, MTA has also founded a company called CENVA S.A. de C.V. (Centro de Valor Agregado Amaranto or Value Added Center for Amaranth) that is the for-profit production arm of the amaranth-production system MTA coordinates. CENVA only manages the commercial and sales aspects of the products. By utilizing this vast web of partnerships and alliances, MTA is perfectly positioned to take the Mexican food system by storm and prove the impact of a totally new development model to combat poor living conditions in rural areas.
Mary’s work in Mexico is amaranth-centric because of the grain’s historic importance in the country, but her approach is adaptable to many other contexts. She sees the opportunity to do similar work with products like quinoa in Bolivia because she recognizes that her success is not due to amaranth alone, but instead her organization’s focus on food biochemistry and multidimensional community mobilization.
Born tenth in a family of eleven, Mary’s parents instilled in her and her siblings the importance of social consciousness. At age 14, Mary first understood what these lessons meant in real life when she went on a school field trip to the extremely impoverished area of San Ildefonso, Amealco. Her experience left her feeling angry and powerless, but determined to affect change in the kind of cyclical poverty she witnessed. Mary then studied Food Biochemistry Engineering with a particular focus on malnutrition. In 1983, she graduated from Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM) with an honors degree.
Mary participated as an active volunteer with the Junior League of Mexico for 16 years and, when she returned to Querétaro in 1993, she founded the Junior Service League of Querétaro. Mary served as president of this league and developed various programs focusing on malnutrition. Once her tenure as president was over, Mary re-entered academia as the Science Coordinator for the Alps Summit Institution (ASI). During her tenure at ASI, she helped develop a science project that focused on amaranth and its nutritional benefits. Mary and her team received various awards and collaborated with Kellogg Company to produce amaranth bars and cereals which are still sold in supermarkets today. This experience helped Mary to realize that with scientific evidence of the nutritional benefits of the amaranth, she could tackle malnourishment in Mexico. In 2005, she decided to dedicate her life to this task and left her work at the school in order to design an integrative food security program.
Mary started working in collaboration with the country’s Secretary of Agriculture and distributing food baskets in these underserved communities. She was not satisfied with the impact of these activities, though, and began to conduct scientific research about the health benefits of amaranth. The more Mary learned about the many health benefits of amaranth, the more she became convinced that amaranth cultivation could be an effective intervention in rural communities plagued by health, psychological, and economic ills. Mary thus began to approach communities about the possibility of growing amaranth, while simultaneously conducting community-based needs assessments in conjunction with local leaders. In this way, Mary and community leaders were able to develop asset-based community development approaches that incorporated amaranth cultivation into larger goals of improving the living conditions in these communities. Today, Mary is at the forefront of a national project that uses amaranth as a strategy to improve nutrition, health and living conditions of rural Mexican communities in the country.
The rural communities who already grow amaranth are improving their nutrition, health and living conditions. The sponsors formed by MTA become agents for change who manage the provision of support, organize events, promote and supervise the cultivation and self-consumption of amaranth in their own communities and implement programs designed by MTA. We aim to complete the amaranth production line in Querétaro, and aim to ensure that their efforts, mission and vision are followed where needed. Amaranth could help eradicate malnutrition, generate hope, enlighten the fields with work, colour and profit and it would improve health and construct a virtuous collaborative culture between all sectors of society.