In our municipality of almost 200,000 residents, there are 520 rural communities, some of which do not have electricity, drinking water, proper sewage, or even schools. However, there is an organization dedicated to ensuring that Sanmiguelense schoolchildren have a healthy start to their day. For 35 years, Feed the Hungry (FTH) has been dedicated to alleviating childhood hunger by providing hot, healthy meals every school day in the school kitchens they operate in 36 mostly rural communities. Before COVID-19, FTH was serving as many as 5,000 meals daily—nearly one million meals each year. When the schools closed because of the pandemic, the organization had two options: stop operating or innovate—even if it had to be done without the full force of its some 100 volunteers.
FTH’s facilities, located on the road to Cieneguita, typically include 12 staff members, 21 cooks, and more than 100 volunteers. Until March, the routine was to arrive at the facility every Monday, unload trucks, unpack, weigh, prepare, pack, and deliver meals every school day.
However, everything changed in March, when schools closed because of the pandemic. Many of the organization’s volunteers are expats following guidelines to self-isolate. Others left the country, concerned about their health.
Feed the Hungry no longer had access to the educational centers where the children were fed and closed its facilities for a few days. But the question of who would feed the children arose, along with who would monitor the food nutrition programs. The staff of 12 returned to the office to develop an emergency plan. The cooks also came to the rescue. They all realized that food had to reach the children and include their families. The staff reopened the facilities and organized themselves to accomplish the work of the former, much larger team. Since then, they have organized food pantries with grains and dry foods so that families of two, three, four, and even five members can eat for up to 15 days at a time.
Paola Juárez, communications director of the organization, told Atención, “When the pandemic started, we chose to suspend work, but as soon as we realized the need, the whole team returned. The cooks have now also joined the organization and distribution teams. This was something new, but everyone had a good attitude. We distribute food to all the communities five days a week and provide Maroma Circus and theater performances, so the kids and families could have a little distraction.”
Juárez acknowledged that because of the pandemic, the organization has lost its volunteers, which is why the staff workload has increased. However, they continue to persevere so that the schoolchildren and their families in San Miguel remain healthy. “There have been ups and downs; we have all learned to do everything. Everyone is doing their share. For deliveries, we have coordinated with the city; it has provided transport and even drivers.”
When children can return to classes in Mexico is uncertain. The Ministry of Public Education has said that once there is a COVID “green light” in each state, face-to-face classes may resume. The decision will be up to the government of each state. Irving Ayala, head of nutrition for FTH, told us that with the contingency, “Everything happened suddenly. Schools were closed; there were no services. We had to stop doing what was working. The NGO keeps a registry of the students who receive food, but not the mothers. With the need and the product, we raised the idea of supporting them at home and began to organize the list of parents. This is how we began to summon the mothers to receive food from the food pantries.”
Faced with this unexpected challenge, Ayala said that his work has been even more rewarding. “It is satisfying to know that we are doing something. People appreciate it because there are people who reach out to them. Despite layoffs and job losses, they still have something to eat. I love being part of the engine because that’s how we move forward and fight famine.”
Delicious and nutritious food
Valentín Patlán is the executive chef of Feed the Hungry. He is also responsible for training the cooks who prepare breakfasts and other meals for the schoolchildren. When Patlán was a student at the Miguel Hidalgo Elementary school, he received food from FTH. He liked the kitchen, possibly inheriting his cooking talent from his mother and his father. “They both use good seasonings,” he said. He studied gastronomy, and without thinking or planning, he ended up at Feed the Hungry. This is how he learned about the process that had brought food to him for several years. On a previous visit to FTH, before the pandemic, Atención noted five dishes had been prepared, “one for each day of the school week.” These were prepared by several mothers who had received food preparation training at FTH. The menu changes four times a year.
Patlán explained that mothers learn how to prepare dishes in the FTH kitchen and especially “to hide vegetables” that the children sometimes don’t want to eat “because they are not used to them.” In schools, when necessary, some classrooms are adapted for training groups of up to 50 mothers to replicate healthy food preparation in their own kitchens. When the pandemic arrived, food preparation was the least of Patlán’s concerns because the majority of the people who receive ingredients from a food pantry already know how to prepare them. At present, leaflets and other instructions for food preparation are being handed out.
Back to School Fund-Raiser
Feed the Hungry’s “Back to School” fundraising campaign runs until October 30. You can show your support by donating through the feedthehungrysma.org site. Canadians can make a tax-deductible donation by contributing via amistadcanada.org. Mexicans taxpayers can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, indicating the amount they wish to donate in pesos, and they will receive instructions and information about making a bank transfer.
A donation of just US $25 feeds a family of five for a month.
Feed the Hungry
In 1984, several homeless people approached Saint Paul’s Church, asking for food. The assistants at that time, including Bill Casselberry, had the idea of starting to feed these people through a small and humble kitchen located in the church. Years later, the current president emeritus, Tony Aldelbert, was asked to take over the program. He accepted and recommended that it be implemented without religious affiliation. This was approved and supported by the expat community. Since then, Feed the Hungry San Miguel has grown to such an extent that it provides food for nearly 5,000 school-age children. It currently operates 36 kitchens connected to schools throughout San Miguel. The organization also provides food for five children’s charities and one for older adults.