Saturday Series: An Interview with Mary McLaughlin

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By Olivia Arnow

Today, Nourishing the Planet kicks off a new Saturday Series, in which we interview inspiring people that our readers have nominated. These people are working on the frontlines to improve the global food and agricultural systems. Want to nominate someone? E-mail your suggestions to Danielle Nierenberg!

Trees That Feed Foundation reforests tropical areas with edible fruit trees. (Photo credit: Trees that Feed)

Name: Mary McLaughlin

Affiliation: Trees That Feed Foundation

Bio: Mary is the founder of Trees That Feed, a non-profit foundation dedicated to maintaining affordable and sustainable food for tropical countries, including Haiti and her homeland Jamaica. The foundation strives to feed people and benefit the environment by reforesting areas with trees that produce edible fruit to improve diets, reduce foreign dependency, and restore ecological balance to the land.

What type of trees does the foundation plant?

I grew up eating breadfruit in Jamaica and I believe it to be one of the most sustainable tropical foods. Our organization plants a variety of trees that produce avocado, mango, papaya, pomegranate, acai, almonds, and cashews, but we primarily focus on planting breadfruit trees.

Breadfruit trees have a particularly long lifespan of 50-70 years and not only absorb carbon dioxide, but also produce a potato-like product that can be roasted, boiled, or fried.

How has the foundation successfully planted these trees?

We work with the Breadfruit Institute at the National Tropical Botanical Garden. They conduct research on nutrition, growth patterns, and seasonality of production and we buy seedlings from them to support their efforts. From there we give the seedlings to local agencies, which distribute to small farms and local schools.

So far, we have planted over 12,000 trees in the last 2 ½ years.

In what ways has planting breadfruit trees benefited the local economies in Haiti and Jamaica?

Though breadfruit can be picked and eaten right from the tree, it can also be used to make breadfruit flour. We’ve collaborated with Dr. Camille George, professor of engineering at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, to create a low-cost, low-energy method for producing the flour. Many may not know, but breadfruit flour is an extremely viable product as it is gluten-free and carbon-positive because no electricity is required to produce it.

Trees That Feed supplies a ‘Factory in a Box’-consisting of a shredder, dryer equipment and grinder- to locals interested in creating their own flour micro-enterprise.

The goal is to have an end product that not only feeds locals and benefits the environment, but also provides a livelihood for local people.

How do you determine which geographic areas to distribute seedlings?

Because our trees are non-invasive, we look for the right climate and then look for good partners on the ground, who distribute to small farmers and local schools. In Jamaica, we work with the Ministry of Agriculture, the Rural Agricultural Development Agency, and the Jeffrey Town Farmers Association.

In Haiti, we have many great partners: One Village Planet, Three Angels Children’s Relief, Fondation Enfant Jesus, and The University of Grand Anse.

How do you determine whether your efforts are making an impact? Has the response been positive?

We routinely make visits to Haiti and Jamaica for field-testing to see how well our trees are doing and to speak to farmers directly. We also help to develop small local co-ops to promote flour markets as well as work directly with merchants assisting in marketing and packaging to increase sales.

We also actively work with the local ministries of agriculture to provide recent developments in research from our partners.

That said the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Our trees are helping reforest the land, feed local populations, and provide individuals with a steady income.

What’s next for Trees That Feed?

Since our trees only produce seasonal fruit, we are working with the Breadfruit Institute’s living collection of 130 varieties in the hope of providing a plant with year-round production.  Furthermore, our goal is to plant 30,000 trees in Haiti and Jamaica and possibly expand to other tropical countries.

To learn more about Trees That Feed, visit their Facebook page.

Olivia Arnow is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one-minute book trailer, click HERE.

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