A Food Support System for Venezuelan Refugees in Colombia

An op-ed by Frank Giustra, co-founder of Acceso

Food takes on an even more vital role during times of crisis. More than 4.7 million Venezuelans have left the country—one reason is the lack of affordable, nutritious food. Fourteen percent of children under five years old monitored by the relief agency Caritas Venezuela are showing signs of acute malnutrition. A 2017 survey found that 64 percent of the population lost at 25 pounds due to lack of proper nutrition.

This refugee crisis is predicted by the Brookings Institution to become the largest in modern history. In Colombia, 1.6 million Venezuelans have arrived as refugees. A few years ago, I supported the creation of a social agribusiness, Acceso Colombia, that purchases fruits and vegetables from small farmers and sells to national retailers, including Grupo Éxito, Olímpica, and Ara, to lift farmers out of poverty. As the Venezuelan refugee crisis worsened, I knew we had to make our agribusiness and farmer network part of the support system bringing food to refugees.

This food support system begins with our network of small farmers who grow bananas, pineapples, carrots, and other fruits and vegetables. Since April 2019, our agribusiness Acceso Colombia, with a personal donation from me of US$350,000, has been purchasing extra produce – more than 480 tons to date – which our local team aggregates and sorts before delivery to local partners. This creates new income opportunities for farmers as well as drivers who transport the produce as far as 500 miles away to reach border cities. Our local team and farmers are thrilled to be part of the network serving Venezuelans.

The support system continues with our local feeding partners: the Association of Food Banks of Colombia (ABACO) and World Central Kitchen in Colombia, and the Wayuu Taya Foundation in Venezuela. They receive our weekly deliveries of fruits and vegetables in their kitchens. Their staff, many of whom are Colombian and Venezuelan volunteers, prepare the food: peeling, dicing, and cooking it along with other food products they receive, like fortified grains, into nutritious meals. This work is de la corazón (from the heart in Spanish) our partners tell us, and the most active kitchens serving three meals a day are busy from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m., serving a steady flow of Venezuelans who are either in transit to larger cities or looking for opportunities to earn money to send home.

Our partnership with local organizations, which has fed more than 4.3 million meals to more than 251,000 Venezuelans to date, is critical on many levels:

These meals are improving the nutrition of families, especially children, and giving them strength to continue on their journeys, many of which are on foot. Venezuelans told us that these meals ensure their survival.

During a recent visit to Cucuta, a major border city with Venezuela, our team shared with me that it was heartbreaking to see hundreds of families with children living on the streets. Money saved from not having to purchase food means it can be used for other necessities like medicine, using a bathroom, or transport costs.

These meals are also a gateway to many other free services offered by our partners including medical attention from doctors and nurses who hold on-site sessions, legal assistance, temporary shelter, and psychological and spiritual support.

And fresh food is much needed as local organizations are constrained for resources. There are tens of thousands more people arriving from Venezuela daily. One of the kitchens in Cucuta, Casa de Paso, that we supply through ABACO, feeds breakfast and lunch to 4,500 people daily of whom 2,000 are children—2,000 children.

We are working hard to bring on additional partners to help expand and extend this program for as long as this crisis exists and are pleased that Aid Live Foundation is joining us as our newest funding partner.