It’s a little known fact because few people would care, but Emma and I were highly unsuccessful at procuring at-home internet service when we first moved to Antigua. Consequently, I’ve become a bit of a coffee shop rat, one of those people who buy one drink, usually selectively cheap, and plants their ass in prime real estate for three or four hours of free WiFi. One of my favorite spots to do this is Bagel Barn, on 5th Avenida, just around the corner from Parque Central.
A couple of weeks ago, as I sat typing next to my empty licuado (smoothie) glass, drained about two hours prior, one of the counter ladies delivered a little plate of cookies to me. For a moment, my ego got the better of me: Normally, I feel a bit tolerated at the places in which I loiter, and suddenly, I felt like one of those recognized and valued regulars, worthy of freebies. Then, after a quick grin, she continued making the rounds, dropping off a little plate of cookies at everyone’s table. Anyway, to finish making a short point long, she’d given me Maya nut cookies.
I’d been seeing the signs in the shop for the better part of however long. Unfortunately, I just never squeezed a taste into the budget, not a Maya nut smoothie, slice of Maya nut cake, the cream cheese, or cookies. Honestly, it sounded a bit hokey to me, capitalizing on the location with a trendy name. That said, it wasn’t so hokey as to prevent me—ever the whore for a new article idea--from inquiring for more info. Isabelle, the manager, was all too obliging.
And so, I learned a thing or two: 1. Bagel Barn is actually the only place in Antigua with Maya nut products on offer and 2. the supplier, the Maya Nut Institute, is yet another upcoming NGO here in Guatemala.
Firstly, we should establish that Maya nut is actually more fruit than nut. (You may recall that the peanut, actually a legume, pulled this same misleading name stunt.) Anyway, the Maya nut comes from the fig family. Whatever it is, the Maya Nut Institute is doing some awesome stuff around this little figgy. The NGO has its fingers in a lot of pies, including operations in several Central American countries, reforestation projects, women empowerment programs, and of course the business of feeding people.
I guess we’ll start with the trees. The Maya nut comes from an evergreen tree that grows naturally in Central America. When the Maya Nut Institute first took up this project, they estimated that nearly 70% of the trees range had fallen prey to logging and other deforestation industries. Since 2001, however, the communities the Institute works with have planted over 1.5 million new Maya nut trees. The new forests will serve as renewed habitats for a lot of wild life (such as jaguars, monkeys, and macaws), as well as provide all those nature-y type things: prevent erosion, create oxygen, and make shady hammock stands. Oh, yeah, and each tree will also be a food source for the next 125 years or so.
In come the women. The Maya Nut Institute has focused specifically on women with this project, believing that “they are a critical link between the family and the environment” and providers of family health care. Thus, in a dozen years of work, over 600 indigenous women have banded together to create twenty-five different companies based around the Maya nut. So, not only have the trees provided families with a better balanced, more consistent diet, but the Maya nuts are also creating some viable income, money that comes from the lady of the house.
Beyond the nuts and forests, the trees are also being promoted as animal fodder. One hectare of trees harvested for fodder provides more animal food than twenty hectares of pasture. The trees are also more hardy, so during droughts (dry season lasts from November to May), Maya nut trees still provide nutrient-rich greenery. The leaves are full of protein and easily digestible. Mexico’s Maya nut enthusiasts are the leaders in trees for fodder; however, in Guatemala, over 1000 acres of Maya Nut plots have been created for ranchers to observe Maya Nut plantations as an alternative to pasture. Win-win-win, as I like to say these days.
Of course, I happened upon the little fig seed in cookie form. In addition to me, it’s enhancing the diets of hundreds of rural communities in Central America. Nestling comfortably into the super food market, the nut contains high levels of calcium, fiber, iron, folate, potassium and antioxidants. Like most nutritious stuff, it’s readily available in powder form and is said to last up to five years without losing flavor, aroma, or nutrients. The powder can be added to baking recipes or sprinkled into other dishes for a little bonus bolster. It can funk up a smoothie or make a pretty unique cream cheese if you so desire. The Maya Nut Institute even has a cookbook.
So, having heard what the Maya nut brings to the table (zing!), you are undoubtedly wondering where to get this stuff. Well, unless you live in the mountains of Central America, your options are going to be fairly limited on this one. At the moment, Bagel Barn is the only place in Antigua where you can sample the wares, ready to eat. However, it is possible to order the Maya nut online, either in whole grain form or as a powder. You can even get it medium or dark roasted. And, the Maya Nut Institute ships worldwide.
If you are interested in giving it a whirl, orders can be made through the website (www.MayaNutInstitute.org) or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org for pricing information. Should you be insanely keen and want over 100 lbs worth (that’s even a bit too much Maya nut for me), it can be purchased from Alimentos Nutri Naturales. Either way, check out these websites and learn a little more about another great project going on here in Guatemala.
In 2013, I decided I want at least part of my writing to be devoted to helping people, or the NGOs that help them, whether they wanted it or not. These NGO profiles are the beginning of that venture, which has now expanded into its own website: The NGO List.