By Stephen Vargha
Most know a soup kitchen as a place where free food (usually soup and bread) is served to the homeless and destitute without judgment or discrimination. These places are usually run by charitable organizations and staffed by a group of volunteers.
Cuenca Soup Kitchen started out that way but has morphed into something bigger. The original location was at Iglesia de San Francisco, in El Centro. The founder wanted to help Venezuelans who had fled their homeland and ended up in Cuenca.
“That all ended on March 12, 2020, in the middle of the day,” said Cuenca Soup Kitchen’s current co-director, Des Dizney. “The pandemic forced us to close immediately, and it left us with a half-days’ worth of food to get rid of as fast as we could.” They ended up handing it out to anyone going by the church.
With a lockdown in place, it was difficult to get food to the people. “We helped the government by encouraging people to donate food and money directly to the government,” said Des. “Now it is through Hearts of Gold Foundation, and we hand out the food.”
In a partnership, Hearts of Gold does the social work and screening of applicants. That leaves Cuenca Soup Kitchen to focus on food and special programs at its Parque la Paz location. By distributing food to the needy, they can currently help 900 people. When they were a traditional soup kitchen, only 200 people could be helped.
Des Dizney’s route to Cuenca Soup Kitchen took her around the world. Her family is originally from France, and her grandfather’s second cousin was the founder of the famous global entertainment company that operates theme parks, resorts, a cruise line, broadcast television networks, and other businesses. When the family moved to Kentucky, the name was phonetically changed from Disney to Dizney.
She was born in Berea, 40 miles south of Lexington. Her mother was a physician, and her father was a teacher and professor. It was his work that took Des to American Samoa, Kenya, and Turkey. Des became a teacher of International Baccalaureate literature at a high school in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
In 2018, Des and Bill O’Brien, moved to Cuenca. In no time, they were involved with Cuenca Soup Kitchen. And in January 2019, Des, Bill, and Smith took the helm of the non-profit organization.
Her leadership has helped expand the Cuenca Soup Kitchen way beyond what a stereotypical soup kitchen does. It starts with the screening of the needy. Once accepted, there is a process to get food to the most in need.
“At three months, we re-evaluate everyone,” said Des. “Some people are so poor that they will never leave the program. Of course, there are some who try to abuse the system.”
Cuenca Soup Kitchen worked with a nutritionist for balanced meals. “We always give rice and beans,” said Des. “Lentils are our number-one choice as they are inexpensive, and they cook really fast. Other beans take too long to cook.”
Not everything is based on the lowest price. “We try to be culturally sensitive and look for long shelf life,” said Des.
This is why potatoes, carrots, beets, and green plantains are usually part of their food handouts. “Plantains are tough on our bags,” Des said with a laugh. “Sometimes we have to double bag them.”
Many times, avena (slow-cooked old-fashioned oatmeal) and trigo pelado are part of the food bags. Trigo pelado is “peeled wheat,” and it can be stored for up to 12 months. Sometimes cracked corn is added to the bags. There is always some sort of bar soap for hygiene and laundry. A roll of toilet paper is always added, and tapioca is part of the bags for families with babies.
Cooking oil and margarine are alternated. One week it is oil, and the next week it is margarine. The same is done with sugar and salt.
Distributing fresh fruits and vegetables is the goal of the Cuenca Soup Kitchen, but the 19-days paro greatly hindered their ability to provide these foods. “Prior to the paro, onions were selling for $20 for a 100-pound sack,” said Des. “Today, that same sack is fetching $75 from various sources.”
The paro eliminated eggs for the needy families. Eggs became a valuable food commodity in Ecuador.
Despite the challenges of the national protests and road closures, Cuenca Soup Kitchen was ready. “We have been through a paro and a pandemic,” said Des. “Because of that, we are prepared for this paro and higher food prices.” It hurts their wallet, but advanced planning should get them through the latest crisis.
“It’s so little, but they are grateful,” Des said. “Americans would be complaining about the amount of food we are handing out.”
A $25 donation gives two food kits per month to a family. Always looking for other food sources, Cuenca Soup Kitchen has Matthews Bagels donating day-old bagels and bread. Dunkin’ sends over leftover donuts on Fridays. “Kids love the sweet treat,” Des said.
There are currently 1,000 people on the waiting list at Cuenca Soup Kitchen. Des is hoping more people can help out financially. There are three ways to do that:
- Bank Transfer / Deposit to Hearts of Gold, Cuenta de ahorros JEP, Account number: 406079928700, RUC number: 0190395251002
- PayPal: email@example.com
- Online: https://www.cuencasoupkitchen.org
“The last one (our website) is the easiest way to set up a monthly donation,” said Des. “We prefer that method as it means we can feed more people due to a generous monthly donation.”
Plastic bags for the food are being phased out. “We are trying to be environmentally responsible,” said Des. “We are using reusable bags that they have to bring back to us for more food.”
It is not all food that the Soup Kitchen offers. “We make a kit of women’s hygiene products,” said Des. “We bring a mother and her daughter in and educate them about health hygiene. Many know so little.”
Diapers are a big part of helping out needy families. And to be environmentally responsible, they are distributing GelWear diapers. The Ecuadorian product is reusable diapers with a completely biodegradable cover and liner that are made from sugar cane waste and bamboo.
GelWear was one of the winners of the Hult Prize social entrepreneurship competition in 2020. Organized by the Hult Prize Foundation, it was promoted by the foundation of Bill Clinton.
“We give the families three shells and 12 liners,” said Des. “They cost $78 and last two to three years.”
Des likes to point out that besides being environmentally responsible, it costs a lot less than what an American family spends on disposable diapers. The average American family will end up spending at least $1,700 per child on disposable diapers according to the 2019 Annual survey by the National Diaper Bank Network.
Volunteers have been knitting hats and sweaters for needy children. Currently, the volunteers are working on layettes for newborns.
The Cuenca Soup Kitchen is planning a huge donation event in the near future. They are hoping to distribute 70 diaper kits and 300 hygiene kits. The hygiene kits costs around seven dollars. The pads are reusable, so they save money like the diapers. And the money goes back into the local economy because they use a Cuencano seamstress.
Des really wants to help out the needy mothers at this fundraising event and way beyond. “If you can donate money, I can buy these diapers at an excellent price,” said Des. “For just $78, a child will be taken care of for the next three years.”
Cuenca Soup Kitchen, Chimborazo, L 3 y Esmeraldas, Cuenca, https://www.cuencasoupkitchen.org
Stephen Vargha’s new book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats.