They are nutritious, they taste good and they are plentiful and cheap. Each year Peruvian fisherfolk haul in between 7 and 8 million tonnes of anchovies, but since the 1950s, the anchovies have always ended up as fishmeal used as animal feed.
Peruvians do eat fish, but they only like big, white ones, explains Melva Pazos, head of technical cooperation at Peru's national fish institute, the Instituto Tecnológico Pesquero (ITP). ITP is, together with FAO, carrying out a two-year project to encourage Peruvians to eat anchovies. The project is targeting five distinct audiences: poor women who run soup kitchens in Lima's impoverished neighbourhoods; primary school children; doctors and health workers; the middle class and, of course, the suppliers - the fishers themselves.
"Doctors tell people that anchovies make you sick," says Ms Pazos. "And this is true - but only because the fish handling is so bad that by the time the fish reach the market they are no longer fresh." So the project is working to educate fishers and fish handlers - and to improve fish handling and hygiene.
The starting point has been a 15-vessel artisanal fleet near Pisco, three hours from Lima, where there is a small anchovy processing plant. To break the habits of generations, the project began with the basic education. "We could have just bought new vessels for the fishermen," says Melva Pazos. "But we didn't because we wanted them to learn how to handle fish properly and to adapt their boats to carry ice." FAO experts worked with the 150 fishermen and with the 120 women at the processing plant, teaching them the basics of hygiene and improved handling.
Once the fish are packed in ice in insulated vans, they are taken to poor neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Lima, where they are distributed to soup kitchens of the slums. Although Peru's economy has stabilized since the 1980s, half of its 26 million people live in extreme poverty, and malnutrition is endemic.
The government subsidizes the soup kitchens, and the project has decided to use them to raise awareness of the benefits of anchovies. Recipes for tasty, nutritious anchovy-based meals have been developed, and young professionals have been drafted in to help the women in the soup kitchens prepare the meals. In addition, the young professionals use theatre and acting to "brand" anchovies as a tasty, fun and healthy meal. So far 20 soup kitchens and 1,100 school children have been involved.
The project is also working with health workers in the poor neighbourhoods to teach them the benefits of eating properly treated anchovies. "Training the doctors will help take care of past misinformation," says Ms Pazos. So far 189 health workers in the Lima region have been trained and other regional health departments are expressing an interest in the scheme.
It has been important for the project not to stigmatize anchovies as the food of the poor. Therefore, a campaign has been initiated to convert the middle class to the fish too, emphasizing the high concentration of Omega 3 oil which is good for preventing stress and heart problems.
"Now fishers know how to produce the anchovies for human consumption, and we have enough to feed a lot of people," Melva Pazos says "So if people want anchovies, they can have them. And they are starting to want them."