Caserio Buena Vista, San Gaspar Ixchil, Guatemala – Marvin Mendez, 14, had just polished off his school meal of tortilla, refried beans, steamed plantain and atol, a corn/soy blend similar to porridge, and was all eagerness to tackle the day’s big assignment: To read and copy in his notebook Aesop’s fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper.”
Marvin is the youngest of six brothers, all of whom eke out a precarious living in tiny maize plots here, deep in Guatemala’s highlands, making $4 a day when the weather is good.
But in this three-room school, the sixth-grader hopes for a different future.
“Reading is what I like best. I want to keep studying to become a professor,” he said.
The odds of higher education and a professional job are daunting. But he does have an advantage compared with thousands of fellow children in Guatemala’s rural, mostly indigenous and desperately poor communities.
His school receives food aid from the U.S. government in a simple but effective program aimed at boosting enrollment and attendance with school meals — often the only nutritious meals the kids get in a country with one of the highest hunger rates for children 5 and under in the world.
“They eat a tortilla with a chili pepper a day, if they’re lucky twice a day. Perhaps one in 20 in the classroom gets an egg” at home, said Caserio Buena Vista school principal María Sales Ramírez. “Before (the aid) they never finished sixth grade, they went up to third and then the father said, ‘He knows how to read and write, now he comes to work with me.’ ”
Escaping hunger, seeking opportunities to go to school or work and helping their families out of extreme deprivation were the top reasons why Guatemalan children said they attempted to migrate alone to the United States last year, when record numbers of unaccompanied kids from Central America were caught crossing the border.
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That’s unique among the tens of thousands of Mexican and other Central American children who were more likely to flee because of violent crime and narcotrafficking gangs, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Thus, while there is no direct evidence that the food program can stem the rush of children from Guatemala to the U.S., experts argue that, by helping kids like Marvin stay in school, it can keep them away from the extremely dangerous trek north.
“At least now a few want to keep studying, before nobody did — before, the No. 1 option was the United States, and now at least it’s No. 4,” after more schooling, professional jobs and marriage, said Nery Sosa of Project Concern International, one of four organizations that administer the USDA-funded program in Guatemala.
“More than anything, it’s about promoting the idea that they have other options.”
PNI Guat Hungry main
Andrea Jimenez Mendez, a mother of six children, volunteers to cook and serve about 50 liters of the only meal, atol (a kind of liquid porridge), for the 200 K-6 children at a school in rural Guatemala. This school doesn’t receive any U.S. aid and sometimes runs out of food. (Photo: Giovanna Dell’Orto)
Food for education
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s McGovern-Dole “food for education” program tries to address both the hunger and illiteracy problems among Guatemala’s children. Authorized by Congress in 2002, it provides agricultural commodities like soy and technical assistance in 27 countries around the world. Its 2014 allocation for Guatemala was $25 million.
The non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, that administer the program here have reported that more children enroll, attend and graduate from primary school, said Karla Tay, a USDA agricultural specialist in Guatemala City, despite the challenges of getting parents onboard.
They must be convinced not only to let children stay in school, but they’re also needed as volunteers to cook the meals, to work in the school vegetable gardens, and even to build some extra infrastructure, like the wood-burning kitchens.
“We tell the parents, you have a commitment with us. It’s tough to get them to understand us. They want the kids to earn money in some plantation,” said Sales, the Buena Vista principal.
“Parents are happy to know the children will eat something.”
Alex Eliseo Anton Garcia, 11, and he has taught himself how to play music and sing because he’s been nearly blind since birth.
When she was the school’s only teacher a dozen years ago, there were no tables or chairs. Today, she’s getting fathers to build shelves for a new room she hopes will be the school library, giving the 60 or so children a chance to spend time reading.
For 12 years, SHARE, a Guatemalan NGO, ran the USDA program in five departments and developed an even stronger, but logistically challenging, incentive for parents of fourth to sixth graders – those most at risk of dropping out.
It gave a monthly ratio of rice, oil, and frijoles to families whose kids had 90 percent attendance and a passing grade. It also started vegetable gardens at the schools to freshen up the meals and teach basic gardening practices.
“We see parents worried about what kids eat, what grades they get, and they continue to build the infrastructure,” said SHARE’s Guillermo González. “During vacation, people would call to have the school open so they could take care of the veggie garden.”
Running out of options
About 50 percent of Guatemalan children graduate from primary school and fewer go on to secondary, according to UNICEF. Most of the others are never enrolled or drop out because their parents, often illiterate, need them working in the fields, at home or in the United States, or simply because they can’t feed them enough to make it through the school day.
“The biggest problem I see is in kindergarten, first and second grade, because there is very low learning — at 10 a.m. they want to go home because they are not eating enough,” said Marco Velasquez,, the principal at the K-6 school in Caserio La Barranca Chiquita, Colotenango, across the steep valley from Buena Vista, that receives no international aid.
Most of his 200 students already work with their parents in the patches of maize around the concrete school or miss months of education to harvest coffee in neighboring regions. Last year, five out of 23 graduates from sixth grade went on to secondary school.
Far more go with or without their parents to the United States — even two second-graders went when their mother sent enough money.
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“I couldn’t keep them, but now I got good news that they are in school,” Velasquez said of the two girls.
In the 6th grade classroom — with paint peeling from its orange walls and bright-red heart cutouts framing the whiteboard — 11 out of the 23 students said they had at least one family member in the United States. Vidal Alexander, 12, has four brothers already in the U.S. He can’t wait to learn English, he said.
During recess, Vidal and a few of his classmates played soccer.
But dozens more crowded silently at a concrete window at the end of the building for their cup of atol, which Andrea Jimenez Mendez had just stirred in a 50-liter pot over a wooden fire.
The mother of six children, including three in the school, had been getting the meal ready since 7:30 that morning. By 10:30 a.m., some of the smallest children were back with their plastic cups for seconds. After she scooped the last drops from the giant pot, she had to turn the rest away.
But at least on that early spring morning, all got something to eat. For two weeks in February, the school didn’t receive any money from the government for atol, said Mirtala Sánchez López, the second-grade teacher in charge of snacks.
“The children kept asking, ‘Señora, where is the atol?’ And we felt sick,” she said.