Harnessing creation’s energy to feed the hungry
by Neal St. Anthony
Adapted from an article originally appearing in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and distributed by the Associated Press.
In 1988, Mike Port, who worked for a food bank, and his wife, Martha, an insurance underwriter, prayed that one day they could work on a mission that would make a difference and provide a modest income.
In the ultimate act of faith, they borrowed against their house and have invested everything in their Solar Oven Society, an organization dedicated to helping impoverished families cook their food safely and economically. The Ports are making every effort to fine-tune their plant and mass-produce what backers hope will be a 300,000 economical solar cookers annually.
“We knew we weren’t going to be independently wealthy, but we wanted to be independently happy,” Mike says.
“This all started when we read an article about solar cookers that said the United Nations estimates that more than 2 billion people don’t have fuel or can’t afford charcoal or wood to cook their food around the world,” Mike says. “Solar cookers are an answer to that problem in many countries.”
Trees are stripped and cut down for buildings and to cook daily meals. Little or no reforestation takes place, destabilizing the land and increasing the deforestation of drought and floods. Women and children spend hours a day foraging for waste wood. Cooking over open fires or leaky stoves, particularly in huts, leads to horrendous rates of lung and throat cancer and eye disease.
The Ports, backed by several local Rotary chapters, Midwest churches, family foundations and individuals, spent years financing and delivering early-generation cookers made by others to Central American, Africa, Asia and elsewhere through missionaries and other nonprofits. There were flimsy cardboard and cracked-plastic versions that didn’t last. Metal containers proved to be too hot to handle in the sun.
Several years ago, the Ports, John Roche, a retired 3M Co. engineer and Solar Oven board member, and other technical volunteers started designing what has evolved into the SOS Sport. It’s a lightweight, durable oven made mostly of recycled materials that can heat to cooking temperatures in the summer or winter sun.
“We’ve been using the new solar cooker at demonstration projects in villages in Kenya,” says Penny Njoroge, a Kenyan affiliated with that country’s Prince of Hope and Healing International. “It’s simple to use and very exciting. This will mean a lot of women who have to spend hours to collect wood, cook over the smoke and get health problems of chest-lung disease and infected eyes. And the little girls who must work with their mothers … should go to school with the boys rather than being sent to the woods. Solar cooking is reaching deeper than people imagine.”
The cookers also are used to pasteurize water, ridding it of disease-carrying bacteria once the temperature hits above 152 degrees for 10 minutes or longer. Untreated water contributes to 80 percent of disease in the developing world, according to the World Health Organization.
The simple, sturdy ovens can be easily assembled without tools in less than an hour.
The Ports, both 56, also have volunteers from several countries working from Solar Oven’s offices in concert with foreign governments, village councils and in-country agencies to help coordinate, finance and deliver thousands of ovens.
And they are selling SOS Sport ovens, pots and accessories for $99 to the public as another way to raise money among adventurous Americans who will discover that this solar oven is pretty nifty on a sunny day.
“I was a 3M mechanical engineer for 35 years, the last 25 or so working on solar development. Great job, great family and life. I’ve got a lot to pay back to the Lord. I’m focused on Third World development of solar. They don’t have much gas or electricity. And this really works,” says John Roche, one of several 3M volunteers.
Already, churches and service groups have sent 400 ovens to Afghanistan, 250 to Haiti and 100 to the United Arab Emirates. In all, the ovens have traveled to 31 countries.
Coca-Cola, interested in new markets for recycled plastic, paid $50,000 of the $110,000 to develop the injection mold for the housing. The Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance covered the rest.
“The molds are good for 1 million ovens,” Mike says.
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