A Nicaraguan woman in a crude, smoke-filled kitchen, cooking over an open fire.
Ester Sánchez inhales smoke from the open fire she cooks on.

Nicaragua’s Toxic Kitchens and How We Can Improve Them

Desperate for Fresh Air

Silvia María Girón is a single mother of two, and you can hear her heartache when she describes her struggles to raise her son and daughter in their rural Nicaraguan community.

“Sometimes you worry about the children,” Silvia said. “Sometimes the situation like this, it’s ugly. Sometimes you want to do something and you can’t. You say how do we do it?  How are we going to continue? But sometimes we can’t. We get stuck and that’s it.” 

One of Silvia’s worries is respiratory health. At just 18, her son has the lungs of a long-time cigarette smoker because he has had to endure years of smoke inhalation from her cooking over an open fire. Even at a young age, he struggles to breathe — and she is heartbroken about his condition.

Nicaraguan woman seated outside with her mother.
Silvia (right) worries about her son’s respiratory problems caused by breathing smoke from the kitchen fire.

Open Fires — a Source of Suffering for Nicaraguan Families

In Nicaragua, cooking with leña (firewood) is part necessity, part tradition. Families have cooked food this way for centuries, and they take pride in the size of the fires they are able to build.
Today, an estimated 700,000 Nicaraguan families cook over wood fires. They typically roast their meals or place their pots over an open three-rock fire in a semi-enclosed space. The traditional method is often their only option, but it presents serious challenges:

  1. 1. Health — As has been the case of Silvia’s son, breathing smoke every day in an enclosed space wreaks havoc on a person’s lungs. As a result, respiratory illnesses and eye problems are tragically common, especially among women and children. The effects are similar to inhaling heavy doses of secondhand cigarette smoke. Another risk is accidents. Every year, thousands of Nicaraguan children suffer from burns caused by open fires.
  2. 2. Sustainability — As thousands of families use wood for their fires, Nicaragua suffers deforestation, which is bad for the environment and also means the supply is becoming scarce.
  3. 3. Cost — Because open fires are inefficient, families spend up to 30% of their income just purchasing wood. The financial burden is huge on families earning just a few dollars a day and struggling to get enough food to eat. Alternatively, there is the time cost of gathering their own wood from the forest and carrying it home on their backs or mules. An additional time cost comes from the cooking process itself, which takes longer due to the inefficient distribution of heat.

The end result is that when you walk into a rural Nicaraguan home, the hot, dark, smoky air engulfs you. You feel it on your skin, in your eyes and in your lungs. What should be a place of safety and comfort is instead a place of filth and danger.

Most Safe Kitchens Are Beyond A Poor Nicaraguan’s Reach

A modern stove is not a workable solution to this problem. In addition to being too costly for a typical Nicaraguan farmer to afford, it would still require expensive fuel to burn — gas or electric — and neither is readily accessible. While efficient wood-burning stoves do exist in the Nicaraguan market, even these simple stoves are too expensive for many families to buy. A day laborer would have to save up for months if not years to purchase a wood-burning stove, which would mean sacrificing other necessities such as food and medicine. This is why charitable efforts to supply these stoves are so critical to improving their situations.

The Solution: The Clean-Air Kitchen Program

In Nicaragua’s Chinandega Department, Cross Catholic Outreach is working with a local ministry partner to rescue families from this health hazard through the Clean-Air Kitchen initiative.

This outreach actually begins with education. Families that have done their cooking this way for generations might not realize the risk they are taking. Ministry staff visit their homes, teach them about carbon monoxide poisoning, and also raise awareness of contamination issues caused by preparing meals on wood or concrete tables that breed bacteria due to their absorbency.

Once a family has been educated on the hazards, it is offered the chance to be blessed with a kitchen renovation. The family need only commit to a token financial contribution indicating a serious commitment to a smoke-free home. The rest of the cost is subsidized by generous donors.

Nicaraguan woman holds a pot over her clean-air stove.
Estela Laines enjoys her safe, sanitary clean-air kitchen.

Simple but Effective Design

While the concept behind the clean-air kitchen appears simple, a great deal of thought, planning and professional guidance has gone into the equipment’s design. To be used successfully and regularly, these kitchens must offer an environmentally sustainable alternative that fits Nicaraguans’ way of life. Each kitchen includes an energy-efficient, smokeless stove that burns less wood and cooks food faster. It also includes a tiled, easily washable food preparation area to eliminate other health risks.

Always monitoring and responding to beneficiary experiences, our partner recently upgraded its stove model to more effectively contain smoke, keep homes cooler and burn wood even more efficiently. The new brick flu design is a more durable option that will bless families for years to come.

Related: Learn about other ways to help the poor in Central America

A Nicaraguan woman uses her sanitary ceramic countertop to prepare a meal.
Luisa prepares a meal on her sanitary ceramic countertop.

Luisa’s Life-Changing Gift

Luisa Estrada’s husband noticed her frequent coughing and was worried about her health.

When our local ministry partner offered the chance to replace the family’s smoky kitchen with a safer, more sanitary facility, her husband jumped at the chance to give her this special gift.

Today, Luisa breathes fresh air as she cooks on her clean-air stove and prepares meals on her ceramic countertop — but that’s not all! Her husband saved enough money to buy bricks to build solid walls, replacing the open-air structure she had been using when there was too much smoke for a fully enclosed space.

Now, instead of smelling smoke, her husband enjoys sitting outside the kitchen to smell his wife’s delicious cooking.

A beneficiary of the clean-air kitchen program shows off her new sanitary counter and shelves.
Gloria’s sanitary food preparation area will keep her family healthier.

Gloria’s Health Restored

Gloria Flores knew she had to do something to improve her health. A visit to the doctor had revealed that her blood pressure was on the rise and that the smoke from her old stove was aggravating it. The primitive kitchen she cooked with was clearly a health risk — but what could she do? With 12 grandchildren in her care, Gloria depended on cooking as a small business and she relied on the income it produced. Rising early, she needed to cook the beans that customers would buy throughout the day.

On her own, Gloria could not afford to change her methods, but with God all things are possible! He worked through donors like you to provide Gloria with the perfect solution: a brand-new clean-air kitchen.

“It is beautiful, and I am so much healthier,” Gloria said. “I have a clean place to prepare the beans for my business and food for my family. I didn’t realize how little wood they use and how easy they are. I feel so blessed!”

Show God’s Love to Poor Nicaraguan Families

Nicaraguan families love their clean-air kitchens!

For that reason, we want to continue offering this transformative gift to more families who suffer from smoke inhalation. We also want to bless them with other critical needs such as clean water and microenterprise support. Our goal is holistic transformation in keeping with the Catholic concept of integrated human development. That is the kind of change you can make possible when you financially support Cross Catholic Outreach.

Join us today and bless a family in need!

Proceeds from this campaign will be used to cover any expenditures incurred through June 30, 2024, the close of our ministry’s fiscal year. In the event that more funds are raised than needed to fully fund the project, the excess funds, if any, will be used to meet the most urgent needs of the ministry.