Indigenous El Salvadorans in the San Isidro Izalco community call the ojushte tree “manna from heaven.”

Recently, a group of Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) leaders – Executive Director Linda Valentine, World Mission Director Hunter Farrell and Funds Development Senior Director Terri Bate, among others – saw first-hand why.

The San Isidro Izalco community struggles to have adequate food because of their poverty. Commercial agriculture uses -- and depletes -- land for sugar cane and other export crops. “Agri-toxins,” as the people refer to chemicals, are sprayed on the land.

But now, residents are developing a nutritious food source from a native tree. And they are being encouraged and aided in their efforts by Kristi Van Nostran, a PC(USA) mission worker in El Salvador who is facilitator of the Joining Hands Network-El Salvador, a ministry of the Presbyterian Hunger Program.  

Several years ago, a native crop was rediscovered, the ojushte seed. “We are rescuing what our ancestors knew” about food sources and cultivation, one farmer told Valentine. Many years ago, this food source saved people from starvation, but it was then forgotten as people turned to more “modern” foods.

Ojushte tree nuts. —Photo by Mike Fitzer

The ojushte tree drops seeds (or nuts) that are high in protein and vitamins. “Now, the people of this community have discovered how to collect, dry, roast and grind them into flour for baking, and a powder that makes a tasty drink, as we experienced first hand!” Valentine said, adding that Van Nostran “has played a key role in helping the community to develop and promote the ojushte seed as source of nutrition, livelihood and food security.”

Though the San Isidro Izalco region is a coffee growing area, “Kristi has helped them work with a local coffee processor to develop means to collect, dry and grind the seeds,” Valentine said. “In connecting them with the local university, means of grafting and cultivating the trees are being developed. People with even a small plot of land are learning to grow the tree, to use it to feed chickens and rabbits, and to feed their families by cultivating fruits and vegetables. Women are taking cookies and sweets made with ojushte to schools to nourish children and encourage healthful eating.” 

Manna from heaven. Like the Israelites in Exodus, “they have discovered that God provides food -- manna (“what is this?”) -- falling from the trees. Little seeds, literally at their feet, create ripples: income, nutrition, community, hope,” Valentine said.

Ana Evith, a woman in the community, is a leader in this effort. “Compellingly, she gives thanks to God as she talks about how this effort gives people a reason to stay in the community rather than fleeing north in search of a better life. “Yes, it takes work but to think that leaving this poor country in search of better prospects in the United States will not require hard work is an illusion,” she told the PC(USA) visitors.

“Stay, build a life here,” she said she implores others in the community. “We can. God has given us opportunity. We have hope.”

And she gives thanks to Kristi Van Nostran for helping to make this possible.  

The Joining Hands Network-El Salvador models the work the PC(USA) is trying to do in many places, Valentine said, “supporting projects such as “Manna Ojushte” as well as advocacing for better laws and more just conditions.”

Valentine said the PMA “talks about collective impact, and how combined efforts can be much more effective than isolated efforts in addressing complex issues like root causes of poverty than isolated efforts.” 

She said “it would seem valuable” for offices such as the Presbyterian Hunger Program, Self-Development of People, Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, Office of Public Witness, Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance among others “to collaborate for greater collective impact … We are doing some of that already, but can we be even more intentional about this?”

The folks in San Isidro Izalco would certainly go for that.