Working With the Community to Foster Deep Roots of Health

By Molly Theobald

Roots of Health, an organization based on the island of Palawan in the Philippines, views maternal and reproductive health as concerns that impact the well-being of entire communities,. “The better care women take of themselves, the better care they can take of their children, and the better children will be able to care for themselves in the future,” says Amina Evangelista Swanepoel, Founding Executive Director of Roots of Health.

The holes in the sides of the drum create an area for planting that is more than six times greater than the top surface of the container. (Photo credit: Molly Theobald)

Roots of Health works with small, informal settlements where families have no actual rights over the land they live on and farm. Most of the land available to them is severely degraded by pollution from mining, development, or run-off from the city. “The families in these communities don’t own their land, they are squatting here,” explains Amina. “They struggle to feed themselves and earn an income with what they have.” A community called Pulang Lupa, for example, is located on an abandoned mercury mine and their soil and water is severely polluted with dangerous chemicals and minerals.

Roots of Health and its staff of young nurses and teachers, work directly with mothers and children, to bring reproductive and maternal health, nutrition, and education into the community.

Roots of Health is also providing families with the tools they need to improve their nutrition. One of these tools is a vertical garden—a large plastic drum with 40 holes cut evenly around the sides. These holes create an area for planting that is more than six times greater than the top surface of the container. The drum is filled with compost-enriched soil and planted with seeds such as eggplant, chili, pumpkin, okra and various indigenous leafy greens such as alugbati and pechay. Straw is used on the top surface as a mulch to help the soil retain moisture and nutrients.

The soil used in the vertical gardens is a homemade mixture of soil, charcoal, which acts as a conditioner, limestone, to reduce the acidity, and compost, to add additional nutrients to the soil.  In this way, the vertical garden is its own self-contained and fertile growing space, producing healthy and nutrient rich harvests that are isolated from ground pollutants and pests.

The organization prefers to use the plastic drums because the plastic stands up best in the humid, tropical weather, explained Marcus Swanepoel, Media and Program Manager for Roots of Health. The drums cost approximately $15 USD each and the organization provides them to families in exchange for a small deposit.

The vegetables grown in these vertical gardens not only help to improve nutrition for mothers and their children, they are also helping to diversify the diets of the entire community.  Each drum produces enough food to supplement household diets, with surplus left over to be sold within the community. And households have really made the vertical gardens their own, adds Marcus. “I know some families that have set up poles on the top of the drums in order to grow beans—that isn’t something we taught them to do. They are doing it all on their own.”

And doing it all on their own is exactly the goal of Roots of Health. “The idea is to eventually give our work over to the communities,” said Marcus. “We want to build a sustainable system that can live healthy lives without the organization.” It would be a sustainable system that starts with mothers and their children, and improves the health and livelihoods of the whole community.

Molly Theobald was a research fellow for Nourishing the Planet and is now currently pursuing her Master of Laws and Master of Public Administration (L.L.M./M.P.A.) at American University.

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