1 of 3
Jason Swensen, Deseret News
Joel, left, William and Elias Guerrero play soccer near their family's underground greenhouse in the Bolivian Altiplano.

SURIQUINA, Bolivia — William Guerrero is building a reputation as a first-rate soccer player here in this remote region of the Bolivia Altiplano some 14,000 feet above sea level.

This is an impoverished area. William will likely never play on an organized team. He may never own a pair of cleats. But the 12-year-old boy can dribble his well-worn ball along the hardened paths of soil outside his home like a veteran.

Young William is strong and looks like he could run forever.

No surprise, said his mother, Bernita Choque. When William's not at school or outside playing soccer with his many siblings, he's likely eating something. Over the past year, William and his family have been enjoying a more healthy, balanced diet thanks to an LDS Church-sponsored greenhouse project that is bringing spinach, carrots and other vitamin-rich produce to a region where vegetables are typically scarce.

The people of the Bolivian Altiplano have long existed on a diet of meat and potatoes. The climate here is simply too harsh for traditional farming and reliable plant growth of most types of vegetables. As a result, many people here live in a perpetual state of vitamin starvation.

Historically, "the (Altiplano) people are malnourished," said Wade Sperry, an agronomist working as a field operations manager for the welfare department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Such malnourishment, he explained, can cause developmental problems and hinder growth and brain development.

Recognizing the need to incorporate fresh vegetables into the diet of LDS Altiplano families, the church introduced a culture-changing technology here in the form of family underground greenhouses. Dozens of earthen greenhouses can now be found outside Altiplano homes, including William's.

Made of adobe and other simple building materials, the greenhouses are providing families with year-round access to tomatoes, spinach, lettuce, peppers, carrots and a produce section's worth of other vitamin-rich veggies.

With the assistance of the church's Benson Institute Office in La Paz, some 100 families have built greenhouses over the past two years. Most of the families are LDS, but many non-LDS families also have been included in the project. The greenhouses are typically built underground where the temperature remains constant, allowing for perpetual harvests, Sperry said.

Most of the greenhouses are about 5 feet deep, 6 feet wide and usually 10 to 15 feet long. After digging a rectangular hole, a wooden frame is built that typically rises about two feet above the ground. A roof made of fiberglass or plastic is then stretched across the frame.

The church provided the building materials for the families to get started, along with plenty of construction assistance and training. The homeowners and their families perform most of the building and labor. Principles of self-sufficiency are followed throughout the building process.

The greenhouse owners also were given a maiden batch of seeds that would allow them to grow the vegetables needed to feed their families — with enough produce left over to sell and purchase more seeds.

Training has been essential to the project's success.

"We teach the people here that they need 10 hours of sunlight to grow a good vegetable," said Sperry, "They have to orient their greenhouses so the sun crosses lengthwise across the greenhouse. Different vegetables are planted at different depths, and if you get the depth wrong, they won't grow correctly."

The training goes beyond building, operating and maintaining the greenhouse. Most greenhouse owners are still adjusting to eating vegetables on a daily basis.

"Introducing something new into the region can be challenging, including changing the diets of the people," said Elizabeth Garcia, who administers the Benson Institute Office in Bolivia.

"The people here have had to get used to eating vegetables," added Sperry. "They're not used to the flavor."

Ongoing Benson Institute training teaches the greenhouse owners how to prepare the vegetables and ways to cook them or to use the vegetables raw. They learn to flavor the veggies with salt, herbs or other products to make them more palatable. Families are also taught the rich nutritional benefits found in spinach, carrots, tomatoes and other produce.

"The greenhouse project is a broad program that helps the family understand how nutrition will help the family improve their health and help their children improve in school and in life," Sperry said.

Choque has witnessed a change in her family since harvesting their first crop in the family greenhouse.

"The kids are happier and healthier," said Choque, who is expecting her 10th child. "They don't seem to get sick much. And they all help with the greenhouse. The little boys bring in the water. Everyone helps collect the vegetables."

Choque has also learned to incorporate green vegetables into her family's traditional Altiplano diet. She enjoys tossing spinach salads and has learned to cook vegetable soup.

A broad smile stretches across Eulogio Ticona's face as he watches his 3-year-old son, Joel, heft a cucumber from the family greenhouse. The cucumber is large enough to compete at any county fair.

"My son is being raised on lettuce, peppers, carrots and other vegetables," said Ticona, who is not LDS. "I believe it's helping his intelligence grow. He's learning his numbers and other things quickly. He's growing quickly."

Ticona doesn't have much time to talk — vegetables are waiting to be picked.

"They grow fast in here. Before you know it, they're ready to be picked and eaten."

e-mail: jswensen@desnews.com