VILLA EL SALVADOR (LIMA), Peru, 8 October -- The streets of Villa El Salvador are only half paved. Sidewalks are almost nonexistent, and trash lies at every corner of the sandy streets. An arid and poor community of an estimated 330 000 people, it developed chaotically on Lima's outskirts as immigrants from rural areas came pouring into the capital in search of work. Villa El Salvador now extends more than 20 kilometres outside the city.

On one of its sandy streets lies the Divina Misericordia school for disabled students. From outside, it looks like any other school, its high gate blocking the unwanted visitor. Inside the walls, though, children are running between rows of lettuce, beets, carrots and broccoli, laughing and hugging their teachers. Their excitement is palpable as they harvest the little school garden they started less than a year ago.

Patience is key

"We started by creating the beds," explains Ramiro Ramos, a 21-year-old student from the carpenter's workshop, who is deaf. His hands move quickly while the teacher translates from sign language. "Then we dug holes for the seeds and planted them, along with some fertilizer. Little by little, the plants started growing. Now they're ready to be eaten!"

The youngest keep an eye on what the teachers do and imitate them with care. The oldest, more confident, work fast and with great dedication. In less than an hour, all the vegetables lie displayed on a table.

Josť Valente, a 17-year-old disabled student, extracts a beautiful fully grown lettuce from the soil and explains: "We were coming every day to water the plants. It was really exciting to see them emerge from the soil!"

The school garden project is sponsored by TeleFood, FAO's campaign to raise awareness about world hunger and money for small hunger-fighting projects. TeleFood provides funds, seeds, tools and training. The Ministry of Agriculture's National Institute for Agrarian Research (INIA) provides technical support in executing the project as well as its irrigation technology.

Altogether, four schools and two farming associations in Villa El Salvador are benefiting from the project. In this arid landscape, it is difficult to imagine how anything could grow at all.

"There was only sand and dirt here when we first came," says Auristela Reynoso, the INIA representative. "We had to clean it all up first, then we brought in soil. We installed our irrigation system and now even we are amazed with the results!"

A useful activity for all

Elvira Pacherres, director of the school, watches the school's first harvest with pleasure. "They love it," she says. "Some learn quicker than others, but all are passionate about their garden. Gardening is now part of the curricula, and it works as a therapy for these children. It shows them how easily they can have access to food if need be, and it gives them responsibilities. Often, these kids are put aside in the family. Their parents consider them a burden. Here they learn how to contribute to the household. Some grow their own little gardens at home, too!"

Everyone at the school was involved from the beginning. The director, the teachers, the students and even some parents helped build the garden from scratch. INIA monitored the project and provided help when needed, calling every day to see how things were going.

The first harvest is being distributed among the students, but part of the next harvest will be sold in order to buy more seeds. The school is looking for funds to cultivate another plot that now lies unused. In cooperation with INIA and FAO, the school is also preparing a manual on how to improve nutrition through vegetable gardens, hoping to convince more schools to start gardens -- and with luck, change arid Villa El Salvador into a green land.