Interview with Al Kocourek, President of Feed the Hungry San Miguel
By Donna Fullerton
Al Kocourek was recently named president of Feed the Hungry San Miguel (FTHSM). I sat down with him to learn about his background and his plans for the organization.
Donna Fullerton: Tell me about your involvement with Feed the Hungry San Miguel.
Al Kocourek: I moved to San Miguel from Columbia, Maryland, with my wife Chris in 2004. I started as a volunteer driver for Feed the Hungry 10 years ago, delivering food to some of our most remote kitchens; became the driver coordinator; and joined the board in 2013. I became president (the first time) in 2014 and for the past 18 months have served as treasurer.
DF: How does your background apply to your work with FTHSM?
AK: My initial work was in systems analysis and financial services, eventually becoming CFO and CEO of companies. My specialty is financial problem-solving. When I joined the board of FTHSM, the organization was in serious financial trouble. After the 2008 financial meltdown, donations were down, and we had just taken on a large debt to finance our new warehouse. Thanks to the hard work of our staff and volunteers in reducing expenses, the donor relations team in finding funding, the leadership of our board of trustees, and the incredible support of our wonderful donors, we are now entirely out of debt and in a position to grow.
DF: How has FTHSM evolved and grown?
AK: Feed the Hungry was founded over 32 years ago. For its first few years, it was a small food kitchen in a church. Past President Tony Adlerbert built today’s FTHSM, spreading it out to the poorest campo communities. The organization started building kitchens and cooking at the schools, a model that worked well for many years.
Five years ago we added a staff nutritionist, and the menus changed, including more fresh vegetables and fruits. FTHSM will not operate a school kitchen if there is a junk food tienda on the school property. The kids are eating better. Too often this is their only meal of the day. Our 2016 cost to serve a hot nutritious meal is US$0.61 (about 11 pesos).
DF: How is FTHSM funded?
AK: It costs nearly US$50,000 each month to cover our operating expenses. The vast majority of our funding is individual donations, much of which comes in during our annual back-to-school and holiday direct mail campaigns. About half of our current kitchens have a direct sponsor, a “Kitchen Angel.”
Around eight percent of revenue comes from Mexican government grants. The remainder of our regular funding comes from events that we run or from businesses that donate through their own events, such as The Restaurant’s recent Guest Chefs Dinner that kicked off Sabores San Miguel, and the opening of the new restaurant, Quince. The Sneed family, a partner in the Quince restaurant, are also Kitchen Angels, sponsoring one of our rural kitchens. On occasion we have received bequests from estates, and we will help potential donors with estate planning options.
DF: In what other ways do you work with the San Miguel community?
AK: We provide jobs—cooks are hired in the schools. There are 28 full-time salaried cooks in the schools where the mothers don’t actively participate. We also have a professional staff of 14 to administer the program. Our two graduate nutritionists conduct seminars for hundreds of mothers annually.
DF: FTHSM provides roughly 4,000 meals every school day. How do you do it?
AK: The entire enterprise operates through people and systems. Our quality controls include frequent inspections of the prepared meals, the kitchen hygiene, and inventory. Inventory information is computerized and, based on the next week’s menu and number of meals projected to be served, food is ordered and the picking/packing labels for each ingredient and kitchen are printed. Volunteers sort food and fill the orders. Early on Tuesday mornings volunteer drivers load up at the FTHSM warehouse and head out to deliver to the schools. The drivers use their own vehicles, gas, and time, navigating streams and muddy roads just for the satisfaction of knowing they are helping to alleviate hunger.
DF: How do you measure results of these programs?
AK: The results are real and tangible. After we establish a school kitchen, we track each student’s height, weight, level of obesity, and level of underweight/malnourishment to measure the impact. It’s very encouraging to see the positive changes in the health of the children due to the food and training we provide.
School principals have told us that absentee rates drop 20 percent as soon as we move into a school. Teachers see a big difference in the classroom. Some children walk miles to school, arriving too tired and hungry to stay awake in class. Now they have energy, they can think better, their brains have fuel to work with.
DF: What are FTHSM’s goals and challenges for the next year?
AK: We hope to open up to five new kitchens in the next twelve months using the community participation model we initiated in 2014. Instead of building separate structures for kitchens, we now work with schools to refurbish excess school space to convert into a kitchen. We then install all the appliances and supplies. This reduces the cost of initializing a new kitchen from approximately US$25,000 to about US$2,500. And we can be open in six weeks instead of six months. Our professional chef conducts classes with local mothers, teaching them to cook at these schools in accordance with the FTHSM menu and standards. The chef himself is a graduate of a school we supported.
There are still too many children not getting fed; 63 percent of Sanmiguelenses live below the poverty level and suffer from food insecurity. Consistent nutrition and education are critical to the future of these children.
DF: Thank you, Al, for your time—and for all that Feed the Hungry San Miguel is doing to help.
To learn more, please visit feedthehungrysma.org.