Feeding the Hungry, One School at a time
The warehouse bay of the Feed the Hungry building is brightly lit and buzzing with people at 6:00 a.m. Volunteers pack crates with food, kitchen cooks stir steaming pots, the whole place is alive with people carrying boxes, moving sacks of rice, getting ready to launch one of the most successful charitable operations in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajanto, Mexico. Large bay doors open to cars and trucks idling outside. Vehicles roll in, like a military convoy, but instead of tanks and armored vehicles, civilian-operated Nissans and Toyotas open their side and cargo doors to receive stores of food to be sent out to schools in the local San Miguel de Allende area.
Feed the Hungry San Miguel de Allende’s (FTHSMA) started as a small grassroots charitable organization in 1984 with members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. The organization evolved over time and, from 1994 to 1996, it completely restructured to resemble what they are today an independent, non-profit organization with no religious, political, or governmental affiliations. They now serve thousands of children in the community. They have built, operated, and provisioned kitchens attached to primary schools in 25 communities in the San Miguel municipality.
Every Tuesday morning, before the sun rises, a core group of volunteers come to the warehouse for FTHSMA. They arrive in their own vehicles, using their own fuel. With daylight just starting to filter into the windows of the warehouse, the cars line up, ready to deliver food to some of the most impoverished schools in the area.
Drivers and other volunteers load -crates containing cleaning supplies, kitchen utensils, fresh vegetables, dairy products, and dry ingredients to make nutritious, well-balanced meals. Crates of food are organized according to school, and each load will feed full one school, one meal a day for each of the school days. Menus are prepared by a full-time nutritionist who works for FTHSMA.
Chip Swab is FTHSMA’s volunteer driver coordinator. He carries a clipboard and coffee. Like a coach calling plays to members of a team, he calls the drivers by their first name, and offers warm handshakes and smiles. They line up on his commands, load the stores, and setoff to deliver the much-needed food to the local schools.
Tom Knapp is a substitute driver for FTHSMA, and today, during my visit, he is “backup” as he likes to call it. Knapp is retired and offered to take me along on one of his trips out to Tres Palmas Primary School.
Laden with food and with the sun in our eyes, we set off for a bumpy ride off the main roads of town for the school.
“When I first started driving for Feed the Hungry, I met a young boy at a school I did a ride along just like you’re doing,” Knapp said as he piloted his car around potholes and over topes (Spanish for speed bumps). “I asked him what he had for breakfast that day, and he said it wasn’t his day to eat. That just killed me inside, and I knew then I wanted to help.”
We drove from the warehouse, through town and turned off the main paved roads onto the dirt paths that led to the school. The further we went the worse the road got and before long we were bumping and bouncing along, Knapp careful to not hit any of the local cows in the road.
Arriving at the school at just about 8:30 the gates were opened for us by the kitchen “mothers.” These women volunteer their time to store, cook, prepare, and serve the children. The mothers along with some anxious schoolchildren unloaded the car much faster than it had been packed and in a few moments every crate was inside the cocina (kitchen) that FTHSMA had built.
Inside the kitchen large steel pots boiled water for making rice, and four-burner stoves cooked fillets of fish and vegetables. Stacks of colored trays rose to eye-level on a table and cups for hot tea were neatly stacked in rows beside them.
FTHSMA provides more than 4,300 meals a day to school-children and each kitchen is a well-oiled machine. Clipboards detailing supplies are hung on the ice-boxes. Graphs and tables denote how much of one supply is left and when it needs to be ordered again. Once the food is brought in, it is logged and stored, if not immediately prepared for the day’s meal.
Sometimes the meal served at school is the only meal these children will get during the day.
“At this school, they run out to my car to get the food,” Knapp said. “Sometimes I don’t even have anything to carry, they get it all in for me!”
As quickly as the food is loaded into the car back at the warehouse in San Miguel de Allende, it’s offloaded and Knapp and I are back in his car to make one more delivery to another school.
We bounced off and repeated the same routine. Like an old, seasoned professional Knapp piloted his car down the dirt road. The sun was higher and the cows that had blocked us before were gone to water. Knapp made sure we made our second school on time. We had to make sure the food got there before lunch. And just like before, a gaggle of school children ran out when we arrived, eager to help us carry to food into the kitchen.
The night before I was scheduled to meet with FTHSMA, I skipped dinner. I skipped breakfast that next morning too. I went to bed with only the slightest hunger pain and woke up with a slightly more intense one. Now, in no way, shape, or form am I suggesting that skipping two meals is akin to perpetual hunger but, I wanted a glimpse of what it was like to operate and work when the tank isn’t full. That morning, I was fortunate to be able to attend a ride-along that dropped off food to local schools in need. Beyond the hunger I was feeling I saw first-hand the hunger not only for food, but for knowledge these children had. At its most basic, food is a tool, a tool for life that gives these children the ability to focus on schoolwork and not on hunger. Food becomes a learning tool. They were so happy to help carry in the groceries and their faces lit up at meal-time, for some, it would be the only food they got that day. But they were kind, respectful, and not only hungry to eat, but hungry to learn as well. I ate my first meal in almost 24 hours with them, and together we filled our stomachs.
Feed the Hungry San Miguel estimates that by the end of this year they will have served more than million meals to hungry children. Feed the Hungry became the first non-profit in San Miguel de Allende to receive certification for transparency and philanthropic accountability by El Centro Mexicano para la Filantropía (CEMEFI ). For more information, visit their website http://feedthehungrysma.org/ or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.
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