Close to Home: Food Baskets Nourish Ecuador Communities

By Aimée Knight

November 1, 2022

When the sun peaks above the horizon, illuminating the lush landscape of Ecuador’s Cotopaxi province, Josselin Vega sets out from home with her dog, Pepa. Together they wind their way up a hillside to a patch of vegetables, where Josselin picks bright green heads of lettuce from one of her fields.

Josselin is just one of the 18,000 farmers Heifer supports in Ecuador, with training, tools and resources to grow food using agroecological practices — a sustainable farming method that nourishes the soil, reduces waste and respects the natural ecosystem.

For many smallholder farmers here, like Josselin, harvesting from the land doesn’t just determine what will end up on their dinner table that evening; it’s also the beginning of a journey that will go on to nourish the wider community.

A woman wearing a face mask stands in a field.
Josselin Vega, a farmer in Cotopaxi province, participates in the Heifer-supported food basket delivery program. She has cultivated crops in her field for seven years. Photo by Isadora Romero/Heifer International.

When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered markets and crippled livelihoods, Heifer Ecuador partnered with Josselin and other local producers to develop a food basket delivery system, connecting produce grown by rural farmers to buyers in city centers.

Today, the food basket program continues as an innovative method of combatting rising hunger, connecting vulnerable families to healthy sustenance, and keeping much-needed income in farmers’ pockets.

It is an especially important intervention for the South American country, where 40% of the rural population live below the poverty line and severe hunger has risen steadily since 2015. When the pandemic hit, over 500,000 jobs disappeared in 2020 alone. And the disaster exacerbated a food crisis that has left 2 out of 4 children malnourished.

A man washes lettuce in a bucket.
Milton Corrales, a participant in the food basket initiative, washes lettuce before transport to a distribution center. Photo by Isadora Romero/Heifer International.

“Who were the heroes? Who was on the frontlines with the doctors and teachers of our country?” said Rosa Rodriguez, country director of Heifer Ecuador. “It was the men and women small-scale farmers.”

From Ecuador's coastal forests where beekeepers produce golden honey to the fields of Azuey province where farmers grow pineapples, tomatoes and herbs, the nutritious goods packed into baskets — and the family farms supplying them — are fighting hunger in their own backyards. And proving the important role farmers play at the heart of local food systems. 

“Heifer Ecuador believes the best food supply is closest to home,” said Rosa of the linkage the food baskets are forming in Ecuador’s local food system. “[This program] helps citizens better know the person who is planting, who is selling, who is delivering their food.”

The food basket program currently provides nutritious food to people in six cities, including the country’s capital of Quito, and intends to expand to two more cities by 2025.

“I’m proud of being responsible for providing quality food to my community, and contributing to a more ecological world,” said Nelly Sagbay, who works on the business team of the Pamar Chacrin Association, one of four mostly-women farmer groups supplying an online market that delivers food baskets to customers.

A woman carries a basket of food.
Norma Iza carries agroecologically-grown products from Cotopaxi to a collection center, where baskets are prepared for distribution. Photo by Isadora Romero/Heifer International.

“I also feel lucky to be able to … ensure fair treatment and trade for local campesinos [indigenous Latin American farmers],” she added.

As we approach the season of gratitude, when many families make joyous memories gathered around platters of food, it’s worth reflecting on the people who do the hard work of growing the bounty to ensure it reaches those in need. In Ecuador, Josselin and many like her continue to take to their fields — filling the baskets and feeding their neighbors.