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Eat Near: ECHO fights hunger abroad, and in its backyard

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A farmer in Chiang Mai, Thailand, making fermented pig feed using techniques learned from the Upland Holistic Development Project and ECHO / DANIELLE FLOOD

A farmer in Chiang Mai, Thailand, making fermented pig feed using techniques learned from the Upland Holistic Development Project and ECHO / DANIELLE FLOOD

Before the bursting of the housing bubble, before the collapse of the global financial system, all of ECHO's work was focused overseas. The Christian nonprofit, based in North Fort Myers, was founded in the 1970s by a group of clergy and laymen after a visit to Haiti opened their eyes to the plight of those living in developing countries. But by 1981, the organization—whose name, an acronym, arose from its work in Haiti: Educational Concerns for Haiti Organization—underwent a shift in leadership and emphasis. From then on, the group dedicated itself to fighting one thing: hunger.

That's meant any number of things, from providing free technical documents on farming in countless languages for growers all over the world to maintaining seed banks on vital species. In 2009, the organization took an even bigger step, and opened its first regional impact center in Chiang Mai, Thailand. They followed that in 2012 with a center in Arusha, Tanzania, and then earlier this year opened a new facility in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

Stan Doerr, the president and CEO of the nonprofit, says the number one factor ECHO looks at when choosing where to set up is obvious: need. But the organization also wants to make sure it's situated in a place where it can maximize its work. Can farmers or advisors travel easily to the center? Are there organizations already on the ground supporting local farmers? Rather than trying to build new development projects, ECHO wants to connect farmers to groups already doing the work.

If someone wants to learn about tilapia farming, Doerr says, instead of ECHO building a model farm, it just sends the farmer down the road to another farm that's already up and running. ECHO, where 87 percent of its $3.3 million budget goes to program expenses, isn't trying to take the place of the Peace Corps or Catholic Relief Services—it's helping people already doing projects "do them better."

But while ECHO's work had always been focused on the developing world, the great recession made the group realize the need in its own backyard. Even as the economy was imploding, Doerr points out, food prices continued to rise. The cost of feeding oneself began taking up an ever larger chunk of one's income.

With that realization, ECHO began sharing its agricultural expertise with local soup kitchens and schools with low-income students and community gardeners. ECHO's Fort Myers campus features a number of demonstration projects, from a huge collection of tropical fruits to keyhole gardens and examples of how to grow food on carpet. Yes, carpet. The farm also shows locals how to grow unfamiliar fruits and vegetables that ECHO's experts have discovered overseas.

"We work with just about anybody who could use our help," Doerr says. That means church groups, state extension agents, civic organizations, developers: ECHO helped those responsible for redeveloping Anna Maria Island's Pine Avenue identify strong plants that could grow in the Florida heat.

And while the organization is explicitly a Christian project, ECHO will work with anyone. "There's no discrimination as to who we work with," Doerr says. "Hunger has no boundaries."

For more information on ECHO, visit echonet.org or call 239-543-3246. The farm is located at 17391 Durrance Road, North Fort Myers.

This is the 50th entry in Eat Near, a regular column dedicated to all the lovely food that folks on the Suncoast grow, raise, kill or craft. If you have an idea for someone/thing to feature, email me at eatnearsrq@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter: @LeveyBaker.

Last modified: June 16, 2014
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