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Inside Colombia’s food banks: ‘Preaching the gospel of nourishment’

posted by Daniel E Freeman
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Tucked away on a mountainside in the impoverished Medellin neighborhood of Vallejuelos, exists one of charitable foundation SACIAR’s many thriving “Templos Comedores,” or spiritual dining rooms, that is “preaching the gospel of nourishment.”

Miriam has five young children, no husband, and no job. Just a short time ago, she was homeless, struggling to feed her children, and her life was “in complete disarray,” according to one of SACIAR’s dearest volunteers, Clemencia Tamayo.

“One day, [Miriam] came into one of our Templos Comedores, and it completely changed her and her children’s lives,” Ms. Tamayo told Colombia Reports as our jeep rounded a narrow mountain curve.

The SACIAR Foundation, most well known for running Colombia’s second largest city’s biggest food bank, also manages Templos Comedores and “Comedores del Corazon” (Dining Rooms of the Heart) throughout some of the country’s poorest neighborhoods. These dining rooms, which are turned into churches and community centers on the weekends, feed over 1,800 malnourished children and elderly every year through the help of volunteers, benefactors, and the parents of the children that they feed.

Though SACIAR –which means to ‘satiate’ in Spanish– is a private organization that does not have affiliations with a specific religious group, the organization is rooted in Catholic values and the transformation from a dining hall to a chapel on weekends was the only way many of these buildings were initially able to exist.

Children in the Mountains

SACIAR’s Co-Director and founder, Sylvia Llano invited me to head up to the farther points of the city with her husband and Co-Director Pedro Giraldo to see the other half of their organization’s philanthropic work: the “direct feeding,” rather than the food delivery of the food bank.

After picking up a prominent benefactor and Ms. Tamayo, our white jeep headed due west as we approached “Saint Teresa Benedict of the Cross,” one of 11 total SACIAR dining rooms helping the poor across Colombia.

What I saw stunned me.

There were near 100 children — most under 10 — sitting politely at decorated dining room tables serving each other, eating slowly and calmly, retrieving their napkins when needed from their laps, cleaning up after themselves, and saying the “magic words” of please and thank you to anyone who addressed them.

“You see how well behaved they are? Do you see their manners?” Tamayo asked while beaming.

It was true. These children, who almost all have just one parent and live in “ranchos” or very minimal often one-room houses stacked on top of each other, were some of the most polite and positive children I’d seen in my life. Additionally, they were eating a hot balanced lunch of chicken, spaghetti-salad, rice, soup and juice; what would normally be an incredible luxury for anyone in this area.

Spiritual Dining Halls and the “Mamas”

The two biggest goals of the team of nuns and “mamas” running the spiritual dining rooms are to fight hunger and teach “values, morals, and life lessons.”

Nuns and clergymen volunteer every day and are the primary organizers of the Templos Comedores and Comedores del Corazon; however, the mothers of the children build up the backbone of the workforce. These “mamas” as they’re called by all involved enter an agreement with the dining hall to work 3-4 shifts a month cooking, serving, collecting food, and cleaning in exchange for meals for them and their children during the day.

Less often, due to the higher prevalence of single mothers, fathers or “papas” will come in and help in exchange for food for their children as well.  The “papas” usually perform ground maintenance tasks, such as cutting the grass or painting the structures themselves.

More Than a Restaurant

Co-Director Giraldo and Tamayo were quick to clarify that these comedores are not soup-kitchens nor restaurants.

“In restaurants, you order, they serve you, you pay, and you leave. That’s not what happens here,” said Giraldo. Tamayo jumped in.

“Here the children learn. They learn how to use silverware, how to clean. They learn respect for the food and the space. They know to pick up rice off the floor [if spilled], they serve themselves soup, they eat slowly.” But Tamayo said that these lessons taught by the “mamas” and the nuns are still not the greatest gifts that the children receive.

In the case of Miriam’s children, they were able to see their mother work to develop skills and practice good values.

“These commodores allow for a new example to be set,” said Tamayo, “when there aren’t very many good examples to follow around them. That’s what [these comedores] can offer.”

Tamayo concluded, “”They do not just receive nourishment, they receive love and values.”

Some of the most elderly in the community also come to eat during the day for free.

History of the Templos Comedores

The history of these Templo Comedores are just as incredible as their purpose and service. According to Giraldo, there has been a need for this type of service for a long time, but especially in recent years where these impoverished families would be displaced due to guerrilla or paramilitary attacks on their homes. This caused them to move to the aforementioned smaller “ranchos.”

The problem was that when any charitable organization such as this popped up to help the suffering citizens, it would be burned or leveled by illegal armed groups as well. SACIAR faced a dilemma as it very much wanted to create means of “direct feeing.”

The Templo Comedor was the answer. If SACIAR opened a dining room service that also functioned as a chapel during the weekends, no armed group would dare touch it. It became a spiritual and sacred place in addition to a dining room, and it remained standing.

Impact Today

Almost seven years later, there are eight Templos Comedores and three Comedores del Corazon — these were built later and are used as a community center on weekends rather than a church – nearly 1,300 children and 500 elderly are being fed breakfast and lunch every weekday, and programs are constantly being added to teach the “mamas” how to sew or cook at home and to allow children to explore music and do their homework.

Tamayo, Giraldo, the benefactor and I sat silently while watching some of the younger kids telling jokes and laughing as they finished their meals.

I turned to Giraldo and stated simply, “This is your life. You feed children who need it the most.”

He looked at me as if taken off-guard by the statement, and then his eyes began to water.

“Yes, I suppose it is. This is our life,” he said.

Sources

  • Interview with Pedro Giraldo
  • Interview with Clemencia Tamayo
  • Visit to Santa Benedicta de la Cruz
  • SACIAR Website (SACIAR)

About the author

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Daniel “Danny” Freeman is a graduate of Dartmouth College where he was a Rockefeller Leadership Fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy. He has previously worked in Washington, DC for U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Danny is a political journalist. Follow him @DannyEFreeman

User Name: Daniel E Freeman

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