Trees that feed

Foundation makes mission of donating breadfruit seedlings

BY JAVENE SKYERS Observer staff reporter skyersj@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, November 09, 2015

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THE well-known proverb says "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime".

That is one of the guiding principles of Trees that Feed Foundation (TFF), a non-profit America-based organisation whose mission is to plant trees to feed people, create jobs and benefit the environment, first established operations in Jamaica before expanding to other developing countries in the Caribbean.

The foundation's most recent project was a week-long programme that saw seven Haitian agronomists visiting the island to learn about fruit tree propagation. Armed with that knowledge, the men will return home to further the ongoing reforestation efforts in their country.

"What happens is a lot of charities in the States send food, but then the local people, first of all they become dependent on charity, and secondly, it hurts local industry. What we want to do is create local industry. So these young men are planting trees [and] they are producing products from the trees like breadfruit flour," said Mike McLaughlin, one of the founders of Trees That Feed.

He added that to help people get started, the foundation will donate trees and equipment and then buy back the finished product. It also assists with packaging, labelling and distribution, but only temporaily, until groups become self-sufficient by building their client base and scaling up production.

Mike, who is Jamaican, said the idea to volunteer through the use of trees was the brainchild of his wife, Mary, who is also Jamaican.

"My wife woke up one morning and said we have been fortunate in life, we should give something back, and she was always interested in the environment, so she said 'let's plant trees'. It's good for the environment, but if you plant fruit trees it's good for people as well, because food means jobs so we started," Mike told the Jamaica Observer.

Mike, who is trained as an actuary, said TTF got some funding and started buying fruit trees, mostly breadfruit, and donated them. He added that they identified a place in the US from where they could buy thousands of breadfruit at a time, as they were propagated by tissue culture (the growth of tissues or cells separate from the organism), which is how flowering plants are propagated.

"But we also discovered we could get a lot of trees locally by root culture, so we found a couple of farmers who could do root culture. We are teaching the Haitians now to do root culture, because Haiti needs reforestation even more than Jamaica. It's a very poor country that's cut down a lot of trees; about 95 per cent of the trees are cut down for firewood," he explained.

Mary, who was trained in geology at the University of the West Indies, is a former petroleum geologist turned artist with a very successful business. which she has now turned over to her son-in-law in order that she can focus more on trees.

Her works have been commissioned by the likes of the US State Department, the Clintons, the Bush family and the Obamas, who she said are all very good customers. One memorable moment for the volunteer was when President Obama asked her to make the gift which he presented to the Prime Minister of Jamaica Portia Simpson Miller on his visit to Jamaica earlier this year.

"But that is one kind of success. To me, although we take no salary to do this, as it's all volunteering, this is giving back to Jamaica, giving back to Haiti, and giving back to the planet, because the air we breathe is the same air everybody is breathing, and these trees will help to purify the air and help everybody," she stated.

"So I started thinking this would be the best way to address climate change, and then I thought I just don't want to plant a timber tree because a timber tree benefits me economically only once, and that's when you cut it down. So, to keep a tree benefiting you economically, and to keep it alive especially in Haiti, you need to plant fruit-producing trees," the former geologist said.

Trees That Feed Foundation is seven years old and gets funding primarily from donations, which goes towards the purchase of trees or equipment for making flour. Financing for the week-long programme with the Haitian farmers came from a grant by the Clinton Family Foundation and the Conservation, Food & Health Foundation in Boston.

The foundation also works closely with the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) through which most of their trees in Jamaica are routed. There is also a programme with Rotary Jamaica, where they partner with Rotary Canada and are planting trees in every school in Jamaica which wants trees.

"So we would like fruit trees in every school. Can you imagine a school with a hedge of cherries? Everybody gets to pick one -- that's vitamin C. Our breadfruit trees, if we have enough land, we can get them equipment for flour in the schools, especially the agricultural schools and they could learn the process," she highlighted.

"But my dream is that schoolchildren in Jamaica come to school and they will get breadfruit porridge to start the day, because that is what will drive the market. People have to get used to it," she stated.

"Why eat oats? When you eat oats, that's only benefiting an American farmer; when you eat cream of wheat, that money is not benefiting Jamaica. And also, when you look at climate change, so much of our energy goes into transporting food, and if you can eat more locally it's much more sustainable," she concluded.

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