Advancing Food Banks

“We thought we knew poverty. We were not ready for this.”

An interview with Ana Catalina Suarez Peña, Director, Latin America Operations

On 12 March – the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic – Ana Catalina Suarez Peña was in São Paulo, working with longtime GFN member Mesa Brasil Sesc. “The first emotion that this situation gave me was fear,” Ana said. “Something is going to happen, but you don’t know what.” She immediately returned home to Bogotá. Four days later the borders closed.

Since then, the hunger situation in Latin America has quickly deteriorated. As economies shut down, hundreds of millions of people in the informal labor market are desperate for food and 85 million children in the region are missing out on school meals. The region, which has seen an increase in food insecurity in recent years, expects a drop of 5.3 percent in GDP due to COVID-19, the worst in recorded history.

Ana previously served as the Executive Director of Asociación de Banco de Alimentos de Colombia (ABACO) and joined GFN in 2018. She typically spends her days in the field with GFN members across 17 countries.

Since mid-March, her days have been filled with non-stop Zoom calls and WhatsApp messages helping food banks shift to zero-contact distribution, institute protocols to protect food bank staff safety, obtain permits to continue operations in the midst of government lockdowns, and source more food to meet the soaring demand.

A regional economic crisis has created funding uncertainties for many food banks and the charities with which they partner. “Food banks are seeing increased demand for food, but they don’t have cash to pay for their operations. Donors want the money converted to food, but we still need to pay for the warehouse, workers, and electricity,” explained Ana. “In this moment, the major need is to support operations and GFN has played a huge role in that.”

Conscious of a likely economic depression, Ana is working with food banks to think through sustainable revenue models that will allow relief to continue at a heightened scale. She analyzes budgets and cash flows and consults with leadership teams. “We know after the health emergency ends, food banks will need to continue to provide hunger relief for many months, maybe even years,” Ana shared.

When Honduras, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, shut down in mid-March, Banco de Alimentos de Honduras (BAH) subsequently had to close its doors. Ana worked with the food bank’s director to devise a plan to re-open. “They were feeling fear,” Ana said. “That was a really long week – trying to balance the fear that the team was feeling with the need to open up the food bank and provide relief for people.”

Ana advised BAH’s director to talk with the government and make the case that food banks are an essential service. Just one week later, BAH opened, serving an additional 5,000 people amid water and food shortages throughout the country.

Ana knows we’re still in the early stages of this global health and economic crisis and she acknowledges that she is concerned about the mental health of food bank staff in her region. “This is different than any other crises,” she said. “Our food bank directors have seen poverty; we thought we knew poverty. But this poverty is every day, this is people crying for food and help. We were not ready for this.”

One of the situations that has been most distressing is that of GFN’s member in Guayaquil, Ecuador, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the regionBanco de Alimentos Diakonía has increased the amount of food it normally distributes six times over since the start of the pandemic. While mounting this enormous response, the organization’s General Manager and staff have lost friends and family due to the virus. Ana was able to support the food bank during this time and even helped organize a funeral mass for one of the family members via Zoom.

Ana, Alfredo, and Paula are determined to support GFN members responding to this emergency. Over the past two months, the team has helped deploy more than $1.9 million in rapid response grants to food banks across Latin America, with another wave of funding slated in the next six weeks. She shared, “Like I say to the food banks, all this effort to help you is because we need food banks and agencies working well and healthy. The solidarity has been amazing; this is the first time in my life I’ve felt how much people care for others.”

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