“They come into bloom as well”
Hungarian journalist Bori Biró is blogging on Pro Ratatouille, a programme that is part of the ERSTE Foundation Roma Partnership.
What is it: you don’t need a lot of resources for it, it provides you with healthy food at a cheap price, improves the economy and does not pollute the environment? The answer: Pro Ratatouille. I wanted to know more about long term potentials of a programme organised for disadvantaged villages where there are no or only a minimal number of local job opportunities. So I traveled to Hejőkeresztúr, a village in the south of Borsod County, Hungary. It was my second visit.
“You look better and better“, I say to Judit Lengyel and I mean it. Judit is an instructor and manager of the community gardens in Hejőszalonta and Hejőkeresztúr and a teacher of the so-called instructor-managers of the “Hejő – Sajó – the KEY is our common Letcho!” programme that was started two months ago. Judit commutes between the villages and tirelessly works on ensuring that each garden is operated in a sustainable manner. This is not an easy task, however, she is really happy when I ask her about this job.
“The best is that we help really poor people. People who have lost their way for some reason may see a future in vegetable growing”, she says. “It is sad to see that some of them haven’t got a job for years and do not know what it means to be responsible for a community. Here, they work in a team, inspiring one another.”
This is extremely important for those whose only chance is public work. “This means a kind of change in lifestyles. We can see that those who have been in the programme since last year have changed. They are fitter, more cooperative and open as well as they smile a lot”, says Melinda Kassai, the head of Butterfly Developments, an organisation that established Pro Ratatouille. “Wherever we start our programme, the starting point is always the social conditions of the locals: unemployment, physical and often mental isolation”.
“When we first arrive at a village, it is really striking that the team members-to-be are just sitting with their hands crossed and are not open at all. As they start working and see the first green shoots coming through the soil, as a result of their work, they ‘come into bloom’ as well”, says Éva Ekker, a colleague of Butterfly Developments, adding that it is not accidental that Pro Ratatouille was developed for growing vegetables: vegetables grow fast and the results can be seen within a short time.
A programme that is good for everybody
“This programme has winners only. Pro Ratatouille is good for everybody, indeed”, says Melinda Kassai. “Everybody can find their way of taking part in it in a flexible way. Pro Ratatouille is based on close cooperation between the participants.”
After many years of unemployment, people are desperate and see no meaning in life. For them, a few encouraging words give wings. “I start work every day saying: ‘How good it is to see you here! You are doing a great job!’, and this gives the colleagues energy for the whole day”, says Zsuzsi Miklós, the instructor-manager of the Sajósenye team of Pro Ratatouille.
Help is badly needed in the place where she comes from. Sajósenye is a small village with a population of 450, located 15 kilometres from Miskolc. Zsuzsi worked as teacher for decades and currently, as a pensioner, she is making good use of her knowledge and experience not only in her own garden. “I learned a lot about plants myself, and I try to pass this knowledge to the people of Sajósenye. As a teacher I could make the most of the children with the help of the power of community and now I do the same with adults”, she says.
A model garden instead of unemployment
It is not only a community but also a model garden. Judit Lengyel is proud that the families taking part in the programme can take healthy food home, what is more, in Hejőszalonta and Hejőkeresztúr, they can also sell the vegetables they have grown.
Judit believes that they could be even more successful if several villages join forces. Melinda Kassai confirms: “The ‘Hejő – Sajó – the KEY is our common Letcho!’ programme was started with the cooperation of eight villages. This is the next milestone of Pro Ratatouille, which makes cooperation possible not only within a village but also among villages. We think together with the villages which means that they also take part in planning.”
The network model is important because the participating villages can inspire and help one another. The point of this method is out-of-school learning, where everything is taught in practice and not at school. “We created Sun Gardens in autumn. This is not only a herbs garden but also a nice (sun-shaped) garden full of edible flowers. We see that now everybody is happy to make it even more beautiful and work on it”, Melinda says.
The creation of the Sun Garden was a great experience for others as well. “We had a concept to create a flowerbed different from the traditional square-shaped ones. We drew it with paper and colour pencils. In the beginning, nobody understood what this would exactly be. It is a great experience to see how they cultivate the garden today and that they can sell or use the herbs in their own kitchen”, Katalin Réthy, the agro-ecologist of Butterfly Developments tells me.
Our aim is sustainable rural development
The aim of this complex programme is not only to ensure reasonable activities that can be carried out on the spot but also to find a market for the vegetables grown. Naturally, long-term planning is necessary for this. Many disadvantaged villages do not even have the funds to start the Pro Ratatouille programme.
“While it is accepted in other walks of life that innovation needs time, it seems that this does not apply to social innovation in Hungary. This is problematic because we are in an especially vulnerable position due to this. Great efforts are needed both from us and the participating mayors to start and maintain the programme”, explains Melinda Kassai.
While there is a heavy demand in Europe for chemical-free foods, Hungary lags behind in this respect. Melinda: “The share of organic farming was 2% at the beginning of the 90s and we haven’t improved in the past 25 years. While this figure is 8% in Romania and 10% in Slovakia, Hungary has stayed at 2%.”
However, organic food is not necessarily expensive. As many as 40 types of vegetables are grown in Pro Ratatouille gardens in a chemical-free way. In several villages, the vegetables grown are used in kindergartens, so the profit stays in the village and a large part of the village can be reached through the kindergarten. “This is just the beginning“, Melinda explains, “but the programme may have an impact also on the next generation. We strive to create a kind of awareness of, demand for and knowledge of chemical-free farming.”
The colleagues of Butterfly Developments are currently working on having a common brand, certification and marketing. Their dream is to make chemical-free farming a new direction of rural development. The wider aim is even more exciting: it is called sustainable community management.
Butterfly Developments (formerly Pro-Cserehát Association) was established in 2009. The Pro Ratatouille programme was developed in 2009 and was first launched in Hejőszalonta in 2012, following a preparatory period of one and a half years. Then it was introduced in Bükkaranyos in 2013 and in Hejőkeresztúr in 2014. Pro Ratatouille is part of the ERSTE Foundation Roma Partnership, while the ‘Hejő – Sajó – the KEY is our common Letcho!’ programme is supported by the Norwegian Civil Fund.
More about the ERSTE Foundation Roma Partnership