Earth University

The following is shared with permission from Emma Zimmerman:

When my dad is on a business trip and there are lots of bananas in the hotel breakfast room, he’ll snap a picture and send it to me with the caption “unlimited bananas!”. Once, when he was alone in the house for a weekend he called me because he heard sirens coming down the street and immediately assumed that the banana police (me) was coming to chastise him for eating all of the bananas while I was gone. Dad, this weekend I learned some tough news, and I hate to break it to you, but turns out I do not rule the banana dynasty after all.

The good news is that I know who does: Earth University. Earth University is an educational/sustainable agriculture project in Limón, Costa Rica, funded by the U.S. government through the USAID. I had the pleasure of visiting Earth with the other ACM students, the ACM director, Javier, Spanish professors, Mario and Carolina, and building attendant/heart and soul of ACM, Iveth, this Thursday and Friday. The goal of Earth University is to accept students from all around the world, especially those from impoverished communities who, otherwise, may not have had access to higher education. These students study and work on the various sustainable agriculture/sustainable development projects taking place at the University, so that they may one day bring these initiatives back to their communities. One of the projects at Earth University is to develop more sustainable banana production processes, and the university grows and packages the “organic” bananas sold at Whole Foods.
To be honest, I was a little nervous about visiting Earth University and seeing the realities of banana farming. Previously, i knew that banana production is extremely unsustainable, that there is only one type of banana crop in the world, and that the one banana strand is going extinct due to disease. However, at Earth, i learned that other banana strands do exist, and in fact, many are being grown by the University. The real problem is one of changing consumers’ tastes, as only the endangered banana strand will sell in stores.
I also learned that, from a production standpoint, it is currently impossible to produce bananas in a 100% organic manner. So, the “organic” certification for bananas actually allows for some pesticide usage. When i pay the extra dollar at Trader Joe’s, those “organic” bananas I’m putting in my cart are not as pure as I once thought. In my opinion, it’s still better to buy the relatively “organic” banana (if one can afford it), not only for personal and environmental health reasons, but in order to support sustainable production projects, such as those taking place at Earth. Buying these “organic” bananas also functions as a way of “voting with your fork” so to speak, for increased, affordable supply of more sustainable options. Then, some of your money (in this case, if you purchase organic bananas from whole  food’s) will go towards Earth’s efforts to ensure that new strands of sustainably-produced bananas become common-place, before bananas are gone forever! Sorry for all the buzzwords and jargon, I’m just really passionate about my favorite yellow friends.

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Look, Dad, unlimited bananas!!!
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This is me in a forest of bananas, look how happy I am
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Don Javier: Señor Costa Rica. I honestly think he knows everyone and everything (including the details of banana growth)

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dscn0972Dreams do come true

We also got to see the assembly line where bananas are cleaned and packaged for Whole Foods. It was definitely a little overwhelming seeing all of the hard work that goes into producing my favorite food. I’ll definitely have a new perspective whenever I un-peel that majestic beauty of a fruit.  The vast amount of bananas going through the assembly line was probably the most overwhelming site for me. It reminded me of all of the food that goes to waste in the U.S. (enough in 1 year to feed every hungry person in the world 2 times!), and all of the Grinnell communities members that i know from Food Recovery Network who would be delighted to have just one bunch for their families. I sure hope all of those bananas are used for good, not evil!

we weren’t allowed to take pictures at the production plant, but could each take a free bunch of bananas! dscn0981

On Friday morning, I woke up early for a beautiful, long run among the trails and fincas (agricultural properties) at Earth. Javier, the ACM program director, originally said he wanted  to run with me, but then decided he was a little tired from running and playing two hours of fútbol the day before, and would rather wake up early to swim laps and lift weights instead (AKA I’m happy I’m not the only crazy person here). Javier’s 18 year old son is a professional futból player in CR, being recruited by tons of D1 coaches in the U.S., so I think it runs in the family.

After breakfast, we had a tour of another one of the Finca’s at Earth, where all of the food is produced for the Cafeteria. While I knew we would be helping with some harvesting, I didn’t know this tour would also involve lots of eating. It reminded me of one of those “Taste of Chicago” tours I’ve read about, except instead of deep-dish pizza, you eat freshly picked fruits that you harvest yourself. My kinda tour. Maybe I can be marketing director for this new kind of food tour: “Taste the Earth”. Any interest? Anyway, we ate Palmitas (hearts of palm), grapefruit, guanábana (soursoup, research says it can help fight cancer), guayaba, carambola (starfruit), cas (which often has a little worm, or 2, inside that is safe to eat) manzana de agua (water apple), coco (coconut), and much, much more. We also learned about a fruit, achiote, whose seeds are used by some indigenous groups as nail polish and lipstick. My friends had lots of fun getting pretty the au natural way (not that they weren’t beautiful before!).

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Our guide, Jorge, with palmitas. So much hard work to harvest this one fruit!
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Amelia and her noms
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Sydney didn’t like grapefruit prior to trying this delicious one
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Profesora and amiga, Carolina, with her starfruit

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Harvest time!
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Yvette, queen of the starfruit harvest

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“Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s achiote” (or something like that)
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au natural beauty queens
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Qué deliciosa

Jorge, our wonderful guide, told us all about the fruits we tasted, and then we helped him harvest yuca! This involves lots of hard work and pulling with arm muscles that are slowly waning from my lack of pull-ups while not running track. Our last stop on the tour was a little garden, where we would try the famous fruta de milagros (miracle fruit). You may have heard of this fruit before, as it’s been advertised in the U.S. When you eat this little pink berry, the protein from the berry binds to your taste buds so everything sour or savory tastes sweet, and everything sweet tastes sour. Jorge had us suck on lemons to assure that they tasted sour (they tasted very sour). Then, after eating the miracle fruit, we would eat the rest of the lemon. I felt like I was eating straight sugar. Even my water tasted sweet! Weird! I didn’t like it (probably because I’m so sweet already)!

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@CarrieZimmerman how jealous are you that I got to harvest your favorite veggie?

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The miracle itself

I like you Earth University. I like what you’re doing for your students, their families, their communities, and this earth. In fact, I like you so much that if I am ever back in Costa Rica for an extended amount of time, I would like very much to become involved in a project here, or even take a class.

Ex-bananana queen out,

(Emma)

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