Keiderlin Gomez’s six siblings like to talk about the times when they could get a hot dog or two from a street vendor right inside their Caracas shantytown known as Carapita. Or when the Hugo Chávez government used to send them canned fruit.
These stories have a magical spell on the 9-year-old Keiderlin. She has grown up in a different time — filled with constant worry about going hungry in the Venezuela of Nicolás Maduro.
And now, there are more worries ahead for virtually everyone here. The International Monetary Fund is predicting that Venezuela’s GDP will shrink by another 35 percent by the end of this year while the country suffers from runaway inflation.
Some experts are so alarmed that they worry about the possibility of a famine in Venezuela. This has led many poor Venezuelan communities to turn to domestic non-governmental organizations for help.
One of the most visible NGOs these days is Alimenta La Solidaridad — Feed Solidarity — which has set up 132 free public eateries across Venezuela to feed as many as 12,000 children and help family budgets a bit. The organization provides lunches Monday through Friday.
Keiderlin has recently been admitted to one such eatery close to her shack along with two of her siblings. All three had to go through a selection process to determine their eligibility.
Like other children applying for the food program, Keiderlin and her two siblings were weighed, their height measured and their blood drawn. They were admitted to the program only if they didn’t meet the standards for normal growth for their respective ages.
The vast majority of children who apply fail the standards — meaning they get admitted, according to social workers for Alimenta La Solidaridad.
This means parents have to react fast, as each eatery gets filled up to its capacity in no time. Currently, there are waiting lists for all the eateries throughout Venezuela.
Keiderlin’s eatery is no exception; there are 25 children waiting for a seat to open.
The altruism of some of the kids in the program can be stunning. They try to save some food from their lunch to give later to children not chosen for the meals.
They leave their eatery with a slice of bread, leftovers of rice and beans, a piece of chicken or arepas placed in their plastic lunch boxes, or on plates they bring with them every time.
“We see this empathy among the kids quiet often,” says Jose Pulido, 49, a community leader who was born and lived in Carapita all his life. His house is right next to Keiderlin’s eatery.
Pulido has seen the selflessness among children up close because he often organizes the lunches in this neighborhood and knows every kid personally, calling them by their names.
The food situation is even worse in rural areas, like in shantytowns scattered around Barquisimeto, the fourth-largest city in Venezuela. The area has been repeatedly hit with power outages and lacks running water as well as gas services.
“We have to cook with wood,” says Adelaida Delgado Rodríguez, 55, who works as a cook and social worker in the Fe y Alegria free eatery on the outskirts of Barquisimeto.
Delgado and her co-workers cook for 170 children. She estimates that just in her neighborhood of El Tostado, there are roughly 1,500 families whose salaries do not even cover food for the whole month.
“It rips up your heart to see so many hungry kids, and we can help just a few of them. Often we have to pick between brothers and sisters,” she says.
Keiderlin’s mother, 38-year-old Yesenia Hernández, felt such relief after the selection process for her neighborhood was over because three of her children made the cut.
But she has a nagging worry: Two of her children who had previously been admitted to the eatery must leave soon. They’re approaching 14, the age limit for qualifying.
The main focus of Alimenta La Solidaridad is on children 5 and younger. If not fed properly, they could find themselves in life-threatening situations or suffer from lifelong ailments, say nutritional experts who work with the organization.
The free eatery program was launched by Roberto Patiño, a Harvard-educated Venezuelan. Back in the spring of 2016, he learned that many kids in poor Caracas neighborhoods didn’t go to school because their parents let them sleep till noon because they did not have enough food to feed them breakfast. Those who did go to morning classes often fainted.
“When a child is not fed, his brain doesn’t develop and he is not able to learn. We are dooming this generation to an unproductive, dependent life,” Patiño, 30, warns as he inaugurates each new eatery.
This NGO has made significant inroads deep into the poorest part of towns, areas once bastions of the ruling party, or chavismo. The Maduro government still sends food to some of these communities through a subsidized food program known as CLAP boxes.
According to government figures, as many as 5.6 million Venezuelans receive these boxes that officials claim contain up to 27 products like cooking oil, sugar, pasta, rice, tomato sauce or a can of tuna.
“Often, it comes late and many products are missing, or get stolen,” said Delgado. She sees the CLAP program as a social control tool over the Venezuelan poor.
On the other hand, Patiño’s program is based on community effort and responsibility. Alimenta La Solidaridad delivers the food, but the rest falls on the shoulders of the residents: They have to provide a kitchen, gas or wood for cooking and volunteers to do the work.
Vital in this process are community leaders like Pulido. He identifies and transmits the needs of the local residents to the NGO’s workers.
It was a happy day for Pulido to see an eatery opening its door in his native neighborhood. “The government abandoned us long time ago,” he says.
But the selection process revealed a worrisome pattern of the social life of shantytowns in today’s Venezuela that is at the core of the current crisis, Pulido believes.
“Most of the women in poor neighborhoods have no male support, little education and no opportunity to find a job. Thus, it is hard for them to provide for their children,” he said.
Keiderlin’s mother, Hernández, belongs to this group of women. The father of her seven children left and never came back. She tries to make a little money by making sandwiches and desserts. Occasionally, she works as a hairdresser.
Two of her oldest sons are now in Peru and send remittances on a regular basis. Those sons, ages 22 and 18, want to make enough to take the whole family to Peru. For now, it appears to be a distant dream, so Hernández focuses on getting her kids enough food each day.
“When at the end of the day my kids are fed, I can say I made it.”