Planting Seeds of Good Nutrition to Grow Without Hunger
By Jesús Aguado
The sale of junk food is prohibited in theory in kindergarten, primary, and secondary schools. In several educational centers, Feed the Hungry (FTH) San Miguel, a nonprofit organization, has required that when junk food tiendas exist on school campuses, they must be closed if the principals wish FTH to support their kitchens. The trade-off is a balanced, healthy, and delicious meal for the students.
Ultimately the students are motivated to attend classes as they look forward to perhaps the only hot meal they receive during the day. Principals have noted that attendance improves dramatically, perhaps by as much as 20 percent, and behavioral problems diminish.
With the program “Full Time Schools” (FTS), the federal government must provide meals in schools with extended class schedules. In some places, eighteen wheelers arrive and hand over food to the schools. Although it is enough, it does not vary, and it is not well balanced. In other schools, food arrives, but it has to be complemented with additional items; still others are fortunate to have the support of Feed the Hungry, an organization that operates 29 school kitchens feeding more than 4,000 students daily, primarily in rural communities.
From the organization’s kitchen
The facilities of this nonprofit organization, which began in 1984, are situated on the road to La Cieneguita. Through the work of more than 100 volunteers, the makings of meals arrive weekly and are then deliciously prepared in order to keep children strong and healthy. Food supplies are also delivered weekly to six charities.
Early every Monday, as many as 20 volunteers go to the FTH facilities to unpack, repack, weigh, and distribute the food into bins that are labeled according to the communities where they will go. The next day at 7am, dozens of volunteers go to the building to transport the food in their own cars to rural communities. Some round trips may take as much as two hours, navigating very treacherous roads.
At the organization’s kitchen was Valentín Patlán, a 27-year-old Sanmiguelense chef. He confessed that when he was a student, the school he attended benefited from FTH’s work, but he did not realize this until he started working for the organization. He had always loved cooking, so he studied gastronomy and learned it from his parents. Now he is responsible for the flavors that all the students enjoy every morning during the entire school year.
During our visit, there were five different dishes ready—one for every day of the week. They were put together by mothers who had attended training in the kitchen to prepare the meals for the new season. The menu changes four times a year, and the third season is about to begin.
Patlán commented that he is responsible for instructing mothers on preparation of the dishes and how to stealthily incorporate the vegetables that some children do not want to eat because they are not used to them. When it is necessary, a classroom is adapted as a kitchen, and Patlán conducts large cooking classes so the mothers can learn how to replicate the FTH cooking model in their kitchens.
The menu goes first
Diana Rodríguez is the nutritionist responsible for preparing healthy and balanced menus that should include seasonal seeds and vegetables. In her experience, she told Atención, in some rural communities where FTH has worked, children eat enough, but not necessarily well-balanced and varied meals. It is not unusual for some students at the schools to present symptoms of malnutrition, like lack of pigment in their hair, white spots on their skin, and also fragile nails. Their symptoms soon subside after they begin eating FTH’s healthy food.
Rodríguez, who visits all 29 communities where the organization operates kitchens, to monitor the health status of the children, commented that the most common meal in the rural communities is made up of tortillas, beans, and rice, “which has no balance, is not complete, and is without variety,” she said. She also commented that in many rural areas, the residents don’t include nutrition-rich cactuses or wild greens in their food because they don’t know how to prepare them or combine them with other seasonal products.
Once Feed the Hungry starts working in a rural community with a school kitchen—where the mothers volunteer help to prepare the meals—the most complicated task is to lead students to eat vegetables like cauliflower or broccoli. To do this, she works hand in hand with Patlán, the chef, to somehow hide the vegetables in interesting flavors. “It is a creative work that we have to do, and sometimes it is very easy. We just have to cut the vegetables in small pieces or mix them in different kinds of salsas,” she said.
Besides offering the meals to the students, the mothers receive training that includes lectures and nutrition workshops where they learn how to replicate preparation of the dishes “from the school to their home kitchens.” During the workshops, they also learn that offering well balanced meals to their children, including lentils, fava beans, other beans, and chickpeas, will help them to grow healthier.
One of the obstacles that FTH faces is the sale of junk food at schools protected by the system. Nevertheless, achievements against this have been important. In communities like Pozo de Balderas, FTH worked hard and, with the help of the moms, the tienda closed due to lack of business because the mothers stopped giving money to their children to buy junk food. Rodríguez noted that the children can eat during their break as many times as they want, and since their food is sufficient and well balanced and includes dessert (mainly fruit), they do not need anything else, not even a candy bar.
When preparing the menus, Diana Rodríguez knows that she needs to take into account feedback from the community mothers. “In Palo Colorado, people eat lentils with lettuce and we adjusted their menu to include that vegetable,” she said. The nutritionist added, “What we also do at Feed the Hungry is to educate people about nutrition for their entire lives. Someday they will be parents and will know how important it is to eat healthily.” Then, the seed will have germinated.
Teaming up is important
Gifford Moody is the current president of Feed the Hungry, A.C., the Mexican operating entity that receives funds and guidelines from Feed the Hungry, Inc., a 503(c)(3) US corporation. After retiring from his job, he decided to look for an organization with an important impact on education and children. He found Feed the Hungry. He said that the organization will keep growing, but it is always important to have support—not just from the community but also from the parents who benefit. “There are 520 rural communities in San Miguel and, although not all of them need our help, we have a waiting list.” He mentioned a school on the road to Celaya where the residents wanted the kitchen but did not support it because they wanted to keep selling junk food. FTH moved the kitchen to a different school.
Moody invites Atención readers to visit their website (feedthehungrysma.org) to learn more about the organization or to donate. They always need volunteers, whose talents will be well used.
In 1984 several indigents were begging for food outside St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and parishioners at that time, including Bill Casselberry, took the initiative of feeding them by preparing meals in a small kitchen in the church. Years later, past president Tony Adlerbert was asked to take over the program. He accepted on one condition: The new operational model must not be related to religious institutions. This condition was accepted and supported by the expat community in the city.
Since then, Feed the Hungry San Miguel has grown to provide nutritious and well balanced meals to more than 4,000 students who have breakfast daily in one of the 29 kitchens next to their schools—a total of nearly 900,000 meals per year. The organization also provides support to five nonprofit organizations that work with children, as well as to ALMA, the home for the elderly.