May 19 2019 | by

THE DEFINITION of ‘food security’ was formulated at the World Food Summit in Rome in 1996. It exists “when people have sufficient physical and economic access at all times to sufficient safe nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” In 2014 a survey funded by the European Union and carried out by SiKanda (Solidaridad Internacional Kanda A. C.) and the Centre for Economic Studies of the prestigious El Colegio de México University examined the impact of food insecurity in the neighbourhoods surrounding the municipal dump of Zaachila, Oaxaca, in the south east of Mexico, with shocking results.

A staggering 94 percent of the population live in conditions of food insecurity of different levels – 23.5 percent mild, 65 percent moderate, 5.5 percent serious – only 6 percent of the population is close to food security. When asked about the availability of food, 84 percent of households replied that they could not afford to buy food due to economic difficulties, whereas 16 percent stated that there was a lack of markets where fresh produce can be obtained. 40 percent of households spent from 50-70 percent of their income on food, and a further 40 percent were spending between 70 and 100 percent. There are no markets or shops to buy fruit and vegetables, and the little food available in the areas surrounding the dump is industrially produced and of poor quality. The nearest market is over 20 kilometres by public transport – an extra expense which disincentives the consumption of fresh and healthy food. 70 percent of the families said they were unable to eat 3 times a day, and 10 percent stated they could eat just once each day.


Canteens necessary


“The situation described revealed the urgency to equip the schools surrounding the dump with canteens and kitchens to guarantee the children who attend them one complete and balanced meal a day,” says José Carlos León Vargas, the SiKanda project Coordinator. “The creation of canteens and the appropriate organisation and accompaniment to these, together with community participation and public and private institutions, training workshops on domestic agriculture and the creation of school gardens, are part of a comprehensive strategy through which it is possible to improve the food security of children living in the immediate vicinity of the dump.”

The dump receives about a thousand tons of unclassified waste daily. It has been in use for over 35 years and does not comply with any national waste treatment regulations. The precarious neighborhoods in its immediate vicinity sprang up in the 90s as illegal settlements for job-seekers from rural areas looking for a better life. These became ‘official’ after the provision of roads and lighting, but have poor access to basic services such as running water, and health services. The proximity to the dump is the main cause of the respiratory, skin and gastrointestinal diseases that affect the population of these neighborhoods with incidence rates much higher than the national average.

In the last 15 years State permission has been given to open schools. One or two teachers and the ground for building are provided, but the rooms must be constructed by the communities themselves. Schools are attended by children from very poor families with an average of 3-4 children, and the majority with semi-illiterate parents.


In action


SiKanda, meaning ‘in action’ in Mixtec, an indigenous language, was founded in 2009. It promotes participatory and sustainable projects to improve the living conditions of vulnerable social groups. Since its creation it has established a strong link with the ‘Pepenadores’, an informal community of recyclers who live and work around the dump. SiKanda proposed a project to improve the food security of children from one elementary school and one middle school, located in the immediate vicinity of the Zaachila dump.

“Specifically we wanted to build and equip one school canteen with its own kitchen and improve one existing canteen,” explains José. “Additionally we wanted to create two school gardens and spread domestic agriculture to the participating families and the local community through training workshops and educational activities while increasing the social cohesion in the area of the intervention, encouraging collaboration between the families, authorities, teachers and students focussing on the promotions of food security.” The total cost of the project was just over €100,000 with an approved contribution from St Anthony’s Charities of €29,000 for the construction of the canteen and equipment for two canteens. The remaining funding for the project was provided by SiKanda and other beneficiaries, the Support and Education Foundation, and the Terra Teach Foundation. “The project was designed and structured in such a way as to facilitate its autonomy, continuity and replicability,” José explains.


Simbolos Patrios


Activities between January and June 2018 focussed on the construction of the canteen for the Simbolos Patrios elementary school, which is attended by over 150 children between the ages of 6 and 12. This will provide nutritious meals to the children, which for many will be their main food source of the day. The second implementation period saw the successful completion of the building and furnishing of the two canteens. From the beginning of the school year in September 2018 to project conclusion at the end of November 2018, more than 40 hours of training for children, teachers and parents were provided on topics including: canteen management, nutrition, hygiene, health, local vegetable production, community participation and gender equality.

“At a general level the project has created a great sense of practical hope, leadership and the possibility of change in the area around the dump,” says José. “If we consider that Simbolos Patrios, only 10 metres away from the mountain of waste, is now one of the best equipped schools, the impact on families has been very positive. Thanks to the construction of this canteen, and other projects, families now have a less negative perception of their future.”


A very nice day


A 15-year-old pupil at Telesecundaria middle school writes, “I am part of a group of young people who help children at other schools. When I go to help the children at Simbolos Patrios I can see the difference in how they eat now thanks to the canteen compared with how they ate before, under the dust from the dump. I feel that things in this neighbourhood can change if we engage everyone.”

“Now I’m in 6th grade; it’s my last year here,” says one 11-year old at Simbolos Patrios. “When I was younger we only had one classroom, which was made of sheet metal and cardboard. But then, through the Support and Education Foundation and SiKanda we got other classrooms. Today is a very nice day because now we have our new canteen, which is very large, clean, and with fresh air!”

“The involvement of the parents has been fundamental,” explains José. “It was very important to establish a good canteen management system. Parents pay five Mexican pesos (0.25 Euro cents) for each meal served, with proceeds from this accessible figure covering the cooks’ salaries and part of the food. Cleaning, management and maintenance are the responsibility of the families on a rota basis.” This self-management has attracted the attention of the Zaachila municipality, which changed at the beginning of 2019. “The new municipal authorities have expressed their intention to support the project either through materials or small loans to improve part of the infrastructure of schools in the area,” adds José.

Thanks to the generosity of the readers of the Messenger of Saint Anthony, one 8-year old not only recognises the benefits to himself, but is also thinking about his younger brother: “Now I know what good food is, and what it is to eat well,” he says. “The canteen has different colours so we know in which area to wash our hands, where to eat and where to put the rubbish. Before, we were just in the classroom and had to eat very quickly. Now we eat and then play a little. My brother is younger, but next year he will be at this school too – I know he will like it a lot!”

Updated on May 19 2019