Adela Esther Castellanos de Merino

Fellow Ashoka
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
El Salvador
Fellow since 2002
This description of Adela Esther Castellanos de Merino's work was prepared when Adela Esther Castellanos de Merino was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002 .


Eager to eradicate the health risks associated with dining out in developing countries, Adela Castellanos is helping small- and medium-sized businesses implement comprehensive sanitation standards and market this competitive advantage to their customers.

La nuova idea

Adela draws on extensive training in food preparation to standardize and implement basic sanitation norms in restaurants, hotels, and other small businesses throughout her native El Salvador. Rather than accept the dominating notion that gastrointestinal sickness is a fact of life in this part of the world, Adela has developed a low-cost preventative method to improve dining sanitation. She educates food-service staff about proper hygiene and works with local business owners to emphasize the market value of cleanliness. She is simultaneously paving the way for a broad public outreach campaign that will educate consumers about proper health standards and teach them how to identify and effectively patronize compliant businesses.

Il problema

In El Salvador, as in many other countries around the developing world, gastrointestinal and other bacterial ailments are commonplace. A glass of bad water, a bite of contaminated fish, and improperly cleaned dishes can all lead to stomachache, diarrhea, fever, or even more severe symptoms of food poisoning. Contrary to the popular stereotype, tourists are not the only people afflicted by digestion problems caused by dining out. Cases of stomach illness abound in local hospitals, schools, restaurants, and other institutions where sanitation and employee hygiene are lax at best.

Although the World Health Organization and the World Food Organization have both issued international standards for food preparation, most Latin American businesses cannot afford the technology that meeting such levels requires. Additionally, these standards still lack a formal strategy to improve sanitation awareness, training, and enforcement. Particularly neglected – and negligent – are the staff and patrons of small- and medium-sized businesses such as restaurants and hotels. Municipal Health Units are officially responsible for the supervision of these enterprises in El Salvador, but instead tend to focus their efforts on canneries and other large-scale food packagers.

In addition to its negative impact on public health, the absence of comprehensive food preparation standards takes a toll on local tourism and economic development. While some tourists shy away from establishments or entire countries known for substandard hygiene, many local consumers assume that they will get a more hygienically sound product at the growing number of foreign-owned international fast food chains like McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Smaller businesses are losing out on much-needed revenues as potential customers choose to lodge or dine elsewhere.

La strategia

To improve food preparation standards in her native El Salvador and beyond, Adela is developing a strategy that first targets tourism-based enterprises in the west and central parts of the country and works to implement similar models in more locally patronized communities and abroad. Participating businesses, attracted by the opportunity to generate more business from both visiting and local health-conscious consumers, undergo a rigorous evaluation, the diagnosis of which forms the basis of a specially tailored training for employees. Adela works closely with businesses to identify sanitary shortcomings, design plans to address them, and ensure ongoing compliance through regular visits with and information made available to employees.

In order to guarantee the most current and economically viable methods of sanitation, Adela has enlisted specialists from every level of the food services industry to work with a pilot group of small enterprises. With the food service consultants’ input, she gains an ever-clearer sense of what types of sanitation standards are and are not practical for different sized businesses. Based on this empirical knowledge and strategic support, Adela plans to develop a certification system whereby compliant businesses earn a seal of approval that can be marketed through different consumer organizations and travel groups. As has been proven in other industries, the seal is a tangible indicator of the type of high quality product and service usually associated with larger and better-known companies. A local and national media outreach campaign will persuade citizens and tourists to seek out the seal of approval and identify themselves as informal sanitation monitors in their visits to restaurants, hotels, and other businesses.

Adela developed her low-cost hygienic training and sanitation model with regard for this problem’s international implications, thus requiring very little modification for broad expansion. Adela will work closely with local authorities to identify and register businesses in new communities and regions, while encouraging non-registered businesses to formalize their status and participate in her initiative. Supermarkets will also be a key target in Adela’s efforts, focusing on the increasing availability of prepared meals and salad bars. Thanks to her years of work within the supermarket industry, Adela already has the contacts and background to move quickly into this arena. She has presented her idea to and is currently in discussions with the National Council of Science, the Salvadoran Institute of Industries, and the National Tourism Foundation. She also intends to form alliances with groups such as the Council for Consumer Protection, which presently focuses more on food prices than food quality.

In the longer term, Adela plans to extend her model of hygiene training and certification to other countries around the region and will add direct efforts to address the needs of businesses serving more local and less touristic communities. Based on the impact demonstrated within the pilot group and the enthusiasm of the food service consultants, Adela foresees the potential for a similar system aimed at the agriculture and meat industries. She also believes that business owners will urge their suppliers to adopt more stringent policies as they become more aware of health concerns and see the benefits of a clean, sanitary workplace.

La persona

The oldest of five children, Adela has been building a base of knowledge about nutrition and sanitation since her undergraduate studies in Food Science and Technology at the University of El Salvador. She has also received technical training in Food Service and Preparation from the Central American Technological Institute and a diploma in micro-enterprise administration from Don Bosco University in San Salvador.

Eager to apply her academic and technical training in the food services industry, Adela began working in 1998 in a maquila, or factory, that produced goods for the U.S. retail chain J.C. Penney. She helped supervise a cafeteria system that served some 3,500 workers daily and, within a short time, was promoted to chief buyer for the dining services. However, her ideas to implement low-cost sanitation standards in the factory were met with resistance by her supervisors. Before long, Adela left J.C. Penney to work with a non-governmental organization that provides technical assistance in sanitation to restaurants and other small enterprises.

While Adela did not deal directly with food handling standards in her non-governmental work, she did learn about the certification and specialized marketing for environmentally friendly goods, an idea that inspired her to look for similar ways to evaluate and recognize quality food preparation standards in small businesses. She drew from years of experience in the food services industry to formalize her new idea in the final project for her micro-enterprise degree in 2000. Truly committed to improving the standards of cleanliness and sanitation in small restaurants and businesses, Adela’s endeavor promises to affect great social and economic change in Central America and abroad, clearly identifying her as a leading social entrepreneur.