Workshop teaches energy-friendly craft of fruit preservation

Plush mangoes fresh from the tree are delicious until a few days pass, the fruit rots and the flies come.

For the Ch’orti’-Maya, an Indigenous group in eastern Guatemala, rotting fruit can mean disease. Flies gorge on the fruit, then flutter about and land on lips, hands and food. And with no functioning sewer system, the flies are carrying some filthy bacteria.

Engineers Without Borders would like to improve these conditions by teaching the Ch’orti’-Maya how to preserve their fruits. Sunflower State Professionals, the local Engineers Without Borders professional chapter, hosted a workshop on how to build a solar dehydrator Saturday. Sunflower State Professionals decided to teach locals how to construct a dehydrator in order to perfect the craft before teaching the skill elsewhere.

“These are technologies that we might implement in Guatemala or another developing community, so we wanted to build our experience here before we try to go overseas,” said Jodi Gentry, president of Sunflower State Professionals. “We want to use technologies that … people can build on their own.”

About 20 people attended the workshop, held at the Douglas County Fairgrounds Community Building, 1930 Harper St. Among them was Pat Owens, whose home garden is filled with peppers and tomatoes. Owens had owned an electric hydrator she once used to preserve tomatoes, but she gave it to her daughter, an avid backpacker. Owens attended the workshop to replace her old dehydrator with an energy-friendly alternative, one she could build herself.

The supplies used were basic: plywood that had already been chopped, measured and painted; a mesh screen; screws; and an electric hand drill. Participants paid $50, about what the materials cost, to build one.

“This is all based around the cost of the materials,” said Dan Buonadonna, Sunflower State Professionals vice president.

The group’s goal was not profit but outreach.

“Our focus is international, but we are interested in … giving back to the community,” Gentry said.

For Barbara Pressgrove, who attended the workshop, the dehydrator meant that she would be able to preserve tomatoes and maybe eggplant to eat at her leisure. But for the Guatemalan people, the dehydrator could mean the difference between watching food rot with no means to preserve it or drying it and thwarting flies and bacteria while enhancing shelf life.

“They have a lot of fruit that goes to waste,” said Brent Metz, an anthropologist and KU professor who has spent 20 years studying the Mayan people.”There’s no refrigeration; there’s no electricity.”

Though Sunflower State Professionals didn’t net any money, getting word out about their social goals was the main reason for the workshop. And the group is not composed only of engineers, Metz said.

“We’ve got school teachers, geographers,” Metz said. “All talents are appreciated.”