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Miami volunteers pack meals to feed malnourished Haitian children

In a matter of two hours Saturday morning, a group of Miami volunteers packed 25,000 rice meals or enough to feed 70 children in Haiti a meal a day for the next year.

By the end of the day, the goal was to have quadrupled that number.

The chance to make a difference in the lives of needy Haitian children drew nearly 500 volunteers like Grisel Ubinas to devote two hours to the Feed My Starving Children event at the University of Miami’s Bank United Center. The non-profit Christian organization based in Minneapolis has been sending its hand-packed meals for 25 years to feed starving children in what today has grown to nearly 70 countries around the world.

Volunteers create assembly line packing teams where they work systematically filling the plastic bags with coffee cups full of white rice and soy pellets, scoops of freeze dried vegetables and chicken flavoring that contains all the essential vitamins and nutrients a malnourished child needs to thrive. Each MannaPack can provide six meals for a child and costs $1.32 to produce. Bags are packed into boxes of 36 packets that will be shipped next week directly to Haiti.

“It’s a very fulfilling experience to know you can help others,” said Ubinas, a 40-year-old West Kendall mother of five, who had one of her children with her Saturday. “It’s important to show my kids that the world doesn’t have opportunities like we have. We have so much. This is the reality.”

The event Saturday was the first step in an effort by Feed My Starving Children to generate community support in Miami. A core group of Miami volunteers are already planning “A Year Without Hunger,” a three-day event Jan. 11-13 at the Miami-Dade County Fair & Expo Center. The hope is to recruit 12,500 volunteers who can pack 2.5 million meals over three days.

The eventual goal is to establish a permanent meal packing center in Miami, similar to the other seven sites the non-profit has located in Minnesota, Chicago and Arizona. That will take $3 million to fund the cost of construction and operations for two years.

Creating a base in Miami is all aimed at saving money on transporting the goods here so more money can go directly to those who need it most. Almost two-thirds of the 130 million meals that Feed My Starving Children provided last year were shipped out of South Florida to Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean, South America or Central America.

But if the food is packaged in the Midwest and needs to be trucked down to South Florida that costs $3,000 for every 40-foot container. Those costs have to be born by the missionary groups that partner with Feed My Starving Children to get the food directly to the countries.

“It gets pretty staggering when you add up all the costs that could be eliminated if we had a location down here,” said Kelli Wollmering, a development advisor for Feed My Starving Children. “That’s why it’s important that we let people in Miami know who we are. This is a great opportunity if someone wants to leverage and have a huge impact in the world.”

Wollmering shows pictures of kids like Toussaint, a Haitian baby who at 14-months old was so malnourished he weighed only seven pounds. Just one month later after eating the Feed My Starving Children food Toussaint’s weight has doubled to 15 pounds and he looks like a more typical healthy baby. The formula for the food was originally designed by food scientists from Cargill and General Mills.

Calvin Babcock has seen the difference first-hand. Babcock, is founder and treasurer of Living Hope Haiti Christian Mission, a Miami-based charity that runs five schools in Northern Haiti. For many of these kids the daily meal from Feed My Starving Children is all they get.

“If you’re malnourished you can’t learn,” Babcock said. “It’s great that we have this food. But we need to continue to do more and feed more people.”

Babcock is helping to lead the fundraising for the Miami Year Without Hunger event in January, where the goal is to raise $550,000 in donations to cover the cost of the food.

“My challenge is to raise $550,000 for a charity that nobody has ever heard of in South Florida,” Babcock said. “I’m not worried. I will turn it over to God.”