Today Mary McLaughlin works and lives in Winnetka, Illinois, but she grew up in Spanish Town the capital of St. Catherine in the county of Middlesex, Jamaica. As a child, her family’s carbohydrate needs were served by a single breadfruit tree growing in their yard.
One day while pondering the issue of food security she had a revelation. If she could plant massive amounts of breadfruit trees in her home country not only would it benefit the environment, but the trees would create micro-economies, combat hunger and lessen the need for expensive imported grains.
The breadfruit, Artocarpus altilis, is a species of flowering tree in the mulberry family. “It tastes like bread,” she explained with a wry smile when I asked her a couple of years ago what breadfruit tasted like. This exotic fruit-which to me look like the dragon eggs on HBO’s "Game of Thrones"-is very versatile. It's commonly referred to as “loaves of bread on trees.”
According to Mary, when roasted the fruit tastes just like a bagel. At lunch time Mary says the fruit can be mashed into a mashed potatoes alternative. It can be dried into chips, which store for a long time, and the chips processed into flour. The breadfruit flour, which is gluten free, can be used to make pancakes, flat bread, and tortillas.
In 2008 Mary and her husband, Mike, formed the Trees That Feed Foundation. In just a few years the 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization has planted thousands of breadfruit trees in Jamaica slowly inching their way to their goal of planting over a million fruit-bearing trees across tropical countries.
One downside of breadfruit is that it has a short harvest season and in nature is slow to propagate. To overcome this the trees the foundation plants are propagated via tissue culture allowing them produce and deploy many trees at once.
Different cultivars-of which there are over 100-that fruit at different times of the year are selected to create a year-round production cycle. Varying the cultivars planted also prevents the possibility of creating a monoculture that can be wiped out by diseases or pests.
The foundation plants breadfruit trees in orphanages, schoolyards, orchards and backyards all across Jamaica. The breadfruit trees are creating food systems and food security where they are needed most.
Recently, the foundation partnered with Compatible Technology International, a nonprofit organization that builds and deploys devices that address the post-harvest side of the food chain, to provide mills to process breadfruit chips into flour.
Together with the flour mills these trees are fostering a breadfruit cottage industry. "When day laborers become breadfruit producers they own their lives," Mary told me recently of the financial impact planting thousands of breadfruit trees is having. "We're creating entrepreneurs, and helping people at the bottom of the economic ladder."
After Haiti was rocked by an earthquake in 2010 the Trees That Feed Foundation saw a need and an opportunity to expand their work. Over the past two years they’ve planted over two thousand trees in Haiti. The trees are a mixture of mangos, avocados, breadfruit, and pomegranates.
A pilot program with Three Angles has created a fruit tree nursery and a program where families are taught how to care for breadfruit trees, harvest, prepare, dry, and mill flour. After completing the program families are provided a micro-loan that will not only allow them to grow their own breadfruit to feed themselves, but also teach them to how market and sell their harvest.
Fruit trees planted by the Trees That Feed Foundation are creating food systems which are controlled by communities, reducing their dependence on imported grains and annual crops which rely heavily on agrochemicals. If you would like to help the foundation continue their work in Jamaica and Haiti and expand into other tropical countries you can make a tax-deductible donation.