Text and photos by John Keeble
An expat-supported soup kitchen to feed the poor opened Thursday in Cuenca’s historic district as concerns grow about the well-being of thousands fleeing instability in Venezuela and Colombia.
The free eatery feeds 60 people in two sittings on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and its organisers hope the generosity of donors will enable it to expand to more days and serve more people. Due to space and financial limitations, the service currently operates on an invitation-only basis.
The project is an example of how Cuenca expats, city government, civic organizations and private citizens are coming together to help people who have arrived with very little and who often go hungry. The soup kitchen’s central organisers are Bob Higgins and his Sustainable Cuenca team; the volunteers and donors are Cuencanos and expats; Cuenca Rotary Club is organising the flow of diners; and the city council is providing the venue.
“Most of the people eating with us at the moment come from Venezuela,” said Higgins at the opening. “We are limited to 30 people in a sitting, but we welcome anyone in need, including Cuenca people.”
The kitchen is a visible sign of the plight of foreigners who have been forced out of their homes and have arrived in Cuenca without resources. Many of them are trying to survive in very poor living conditions and have little food to eat.
Cuenca’s foreign relations office estimates that there are about 3,000 Colombians living in the city, most of them holding official refugee status. Support groups for Venezuelan immigrants say there are as many 4,000 in Cuenca, with the numbers increasing daily.
Jacinto Sanches and his wife Lorena Vasquez fled Colombia with their two-year-old son Christopher – a journey that has led to them living in one room in Cuenca, searching for work, and glad to get a free meal at the soup kitchen.
“We had to leave Colombia because of the crime,” said Sanches, who worked on home and garden repairs and building projects. “The cartels ask for money and you never know if they will kill you. They put a bomb in a bus. We never felt safe.”
Now, they hope for a better future but they have nothing. “We are often hungry, especially Christopher. He asks for milk but we have to give him water. Eating here today is a big help.”
However, the limits at the soup kitchen are not just on the numbers fed – the service runs on a three-week cycle. A group of 60 gets free meals twice a week for three weeks, then a new group replaces them.
Higgins and his team ran a test day before the official opening. The two days’ finances have shown that it costs 71 cents per person per meal. This is about $43 a day to feed 60 people with soup, chicken, rice, fruit and a drink. In addition, some kind donors are giving goods and food.
“We want to expand to four days a week as our next step,” said Higgins. “There is a lot of competition for donation money at the moment and any expansion depends on the generosity of people who can give. A one-shot gift is very welcome but a regular commitment to give $15 or $20 a month would help even more because it would let us plan with more certainty.”
A later step could be moving to a bigger venue to increase the number of people at each sitting and the future might also include preparing boxes of food to take out to Cuenca’s poor, including those seen on the streets of El Centro.
If you would like to donate, project sponsors prefer that you give money. Your dollars will go a lot further because Sustainable Cuenca can buy more at wholesale prices and you can buy at retail prices.
For more information and to learn how to help, write Bob Higgins at SustainableCuenca@gmail.com