Elisalex Löwenstein, president of Mary’s Meals in Spain:
« The only reason the kids don’t study is because they don’t eat»
TEXT: RAMÓN OLIVER IMAGES: ALBERTO CARRASCO
In November 2002, the Scot Magnus MacFarlane, an aid worker who had already spent ten years traveling to places like the former Yugoslavia, Romania, India or Haiti doing humanitarian work, went to Malawi to help out during the severe famine that was ravaging the country. One day he accompanied a priest inside a hut where a woman lay dying, about to leave behind six orphans. Magnus asked the eldest son, just 14 years old, what his dream in life was. That boy replied that his dream was to eat every day in order to be able to study. That marked the birth of Mary’s Meals, an organization present today in 18 countries and thanks to which 1,425,013 children have a meal every day in school canteens.
Why was his conversation with that boy so important?
Because he realized that, for ten years, his approach to the work had been wrong. Generally speaking, any help that arrived was always emergency aid. Teams of volunteers traveled to the affected area, provided the aid in a timely manner and departed. But that won’t manage to transform anything. Nothing really changed for those children, once the aid workers returned to their countries of origin. So Magnus decided to change the whole approach. He found a small school of just 200 children and made them a proposal. If we brought food, would the mothers come to cook it? That was how it all started.
Do education and nutrition go hand in hand?
Absolutely. If these kids don’t study, it’s because they don’t eat. There’s no other reason. When food arrives, everything changes. Classrooms fill up, the grades go up, children pass exams… For them, it means going from having no future to being able to study and start thinking about tomorrow. And those children are really eager to study.
What role have the mothers in your project?
The mothers play a fundamental role. It’s arduous work for them. They walk for hours to get to school, cook in huge pots and are joyfully singing the whole time. This is a change which, moreover, ends up causing a profound transformation of the whole community. This is because coming forward as volunteer cooks has the added effect of getting the mothers much more engaged in their children’s education. In addition, they are also responsible for preventing the food being stolen. They organize themselves in shifts and ensure that the food bags do not disappear. Education ends up becoming something important for the community.
How can someone participate in your project?
The easiest way is through the website, where you can make small donations or sponsor a school, thus guaranteeing it has food for a whole year.
Is hunger a problem that only affects the third world?
No, it also affects ours. The difference is that here there are many organizations that can help. But, in those countries, there’s no one else. They are completely alone. That’s why we go to work in those parts of the world.
How important are the local volunteers in your projects?
Very. The work is coordinated from Scotland – and each of our other offices such as in Spain, Italy, Germany, Portugal and Australia – and they handle the economic, ethical, logistics aspects, etc. But the field work is fundamentally carried out by local members and volunteers. For projects to be successful, it’s essential to get the communities fully involved, to the point where 95 percent of the people working full-time in the different countries are local volunteers we are progressively training. We don’t send volunteers from Europe.
Does your project stir people’s consciences?
More than stir people’s consciences, what it does is move their hearts. We want people to realize they can help. That you can offer your donation, your time or your prayers for these children. In Europe my generation went hungry and had other problems, and others came to help us. It’s now our turn to do the same for others. These children have no one. Organizations such as ours make them feel they’re not alone.