You’ve probably seen the sign when you’re coming into San Miguel de Allende. The sign that says Population: 140,000.
Then you look at the size of the town and think. But where are they? There isn’t room for 140,000 people.
There’s a reason. The municipality of San Miguel de Allende extends far beyond San Miguel proper. To 54 different towns and villages. None of them over 3,000 in population. But where 80,000 San Miguelenses make their home.
If you’re like me, you live where that other 60,000 live. And, like me, you’re possibly one of the 6,500 or so who is a retiree, an expat or snowbird. And, like me, you probably live a pretty charmed life. A Disneyland for adults is what some& people have called San Miguel. And I agree. So much to see and so much to do and, thanks to Don Day’s Wife and I both being reasonably successful in our careers, not a great need to watch our pesos.
But out in those villages, there’s another side to life. In our world class city, the place that readers of Conde Nast Traveller voted “the best city in the world”, thousands of children go to bed each night hungry.
My eyes had been shut to that poverty until a few weeks ago when I went out to one of those villages. I was tagging along with a friend, Will Brien, as he made a delivery. Will has a shiny toy, a silver Jeep. But unlike most toys, this is a very practical toy. For without it, we wouldn’t have been able to make that delivery.
The village was located about 30 minutes outside the San Miguel that I know. And after about 25 of those minutes we arrived at a river. Not the widest of rivers. But the depth was a mystery. I looked for a bridge and there was one. A pedestrian bridge. As Will steered his silver toy down the river bank, I was thinking. Jeeps aren’t boats. Do they float?
We did make it across. And up a trail that rocked and rolled the Jeep past fields of squash and homes that, if the statistics on poverty are correct, may not have had a television, a refrigerator, even electricity, water or a toilet that flushed.
42% of Mexico’s population live in poverty. 9% live in extreme poverty. And most of those people live in rural areas outside of major cities. Like San Miguel de Allende.
Will’s cargo was crates of food. Rice. Flour. Eggs. Pasta. Corn. Beans. Sugar. Tomatoes. Will’s destination was a school. That day, a few weeks ago, was my first exposure to an organization called Feed The Hungry San Miguel.
It was another Feed The Hungry volunteer, Michael Gerber, who suggested last week’s lunch. I’d been talking about how I’d wanted to write about the charity’s work but how difficult it was trying to truly comprehend what it was like to live in those villages with so little when I had so much.
“What we could do”, said Michael, “is invite you and your group, The Gentlemen Who Lunch, to our facilities. We could cook a typical school meal and you’d certainly have a better idea of how something very nutricious can be created for very little money.”
Feed The Hungry has a large facility just outside of San Miguel on the road to Cieneguita and to some of those villages that the organization supports. There are a few offices, but mostly it’s a warehouse where, each week, a large quantity of food is received, stored, sorted and allocated to 27 school kitchens.
Now the next few numbers I’m going to share with you are staggering. When I first heard them, I thought someone must have their math wrong. From that food that is distributed, meals are served to more than 4,000 students, five days a week. That’s 80,000 meals a month, almost a million meals a year. Like I said, when I first saw those numbers, I was dumbfounded.
Last week, the Feed The Hungry San Miguel warehouse where the food for those almost a million meals gets distributed also became a dining room for The Gentlemen Who Lunch. Twelve of us joined a few members of Feed The Hungry’s board. Valentin Patlan, Feed The Hungry’s chef, who, among other tasks, along with the charity’s dieticians, is responsible for developing menus and training the workers in the school kitchens, took that week’s menus and recreated them in the facility’s training kitchen. Though the charity didn’t know it when they hired him, Valentin once personally benefited from Feed The Hungry.
“When I was a child, I ate Feed The Hungry meals every day, but all I knew back then was that Norte Americanos brought groceries to my school every week. I never thought much about it, that’s just the way it was”, said Valentin.
Valentin’s food was spread out in buffet form and we lined up like those children in the villages. There were beans, rice, corn, a small portion of beef in a stew, potatoes, lentils, broccoli, more rice, more beans, more rice. All of these menus are developed to provide affordable nutrition for the students. I must admit that I’m not exactly into nutritious but I am into delicious and I was wowed.
I didn’t say much to The Gentlemen Who Lunch and they didn’t say much to me. We just nodded. You know that look where you squeeze your teeth and lips together and squinch your eyes in order to say this is good, very good. With the right herbs and spices, the most humble of ingredients became restaurant quality dishes. For, in US dollars, about 70 cents a person.
I thought, if this was a traditional restaurant, would I review it on dondayinsma, where only about 40% of the restaurants I ever go to ever get a mention? Absolutely.
After the lunch there were a couple of my favorite kind of speeches, short speeches. The first one was from Feed The Hungry president, Gary Peterson, but before I tell you what Gary said, let me tell you about some research I did about education in Mexico.
Maybe I’m more naive than most but I thought most Mexican children went at least as far as finishing primary school. In the most recent year that statistics are available, 700,000 Mexican students dropped out of grades one through nine. 7.9 percent (almost 9 million) of the Mexican population is illiterate. 73% of Mexican households have at least one member either without any education at all or education below the 7th grade. And in some Mexican states, 40 percent of all people have education below the 7th grade.
“When we first go into a school”, said Gary Peterson, 60 to 70% of the children suffer from malnutrition. By feeding the body, we feed the brain and that’s how we help them break out of that cycle of poverty.”
Gary told us that when a kitchen is opened, school attendance is increased by 15 to 20% and, as the summer break nears its end, kids are itching to get back to school. He also told me that they can eat as much as they want but they can’t do take-out and they can’t do dogs. Apparently, immediately after the children discover the benefits of school with lunch, the hounds are next in line.
“Feed the brain and performance goes up”, said Gary. “Not only that, behavioral problems are greatly reduced.”
Chip Swab was the next person to speak. Chip recently replaced Will Brien, the guy who opened my eyes, the guy who took me out on that first delivery, as head of the volunteer drivers group.
Chip is one of 20 volunteers who, every Tuesday morning, picks up a week’s supplies at Feed The Hungry’s warehouse and spends the next hour or so driving it to one or sometimes two of the schools.
“Last week we only had 13 drivers and I really had to scramble to find 7 substitutes”, said Chip. “I need drivers who can do it almost every week and I need drivers who can fill in occasionally.”
You don’t need a 4-wheel drive vehicle like Will Brien’s to get to most of the schools. You don’t even need a very big car. Your biggest reward will probably be the smile on a child’s face when they come running to your car to help you unload it and carry it to the kitchen.
Feed the Hungry San Miguel’s ultimate goal is “No child in San Miguel shall know the pain of hunger.” I’m enjoying doing my little part to help them achieve it. I think you’ll probably enjoy it too.
To volunteer as a driver, you can contact Chip Swab at firstname.lastname@example.org or 120 0543.
If, like me, you don’t own a car, there are many other ways to contribute to Feed The Hungry, including the most obvious of simply donating money to help fund those almost a million meals. You can find out about all of those ways at feedthehungrysma.org.