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A Food Bank on the Frontlines of Conflict Keeps Delivering

A resilient female coordinator ensures Ecuador's largest food bank continues distribution amid a state of emergency.

Jan. 9, 2024. Not a day to forget.

A family meeting was the first order of business when Mónica Isabel Echeverría Troya arrived home that Tuesday, fresh off streets that seemed owned by armed gangs in Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil.

She’d just crossed a final makeshift checkpoint at the edge of her neighborhood, where she’d seen people physically assaulted and robbed of their purses and phones. She was permitted to pass because she’d grown up with some of those pandilleros. But it signaled the situation’s seriousness.

That afternoon, hooded men with guns and knives broke into a television station and took terrified staff hostage. Over 24 hours, a powerful gang leader escaped from jail, more than 150 prison guards were taken hostages, seven policemen were kidnapped, about 30 cars exploded, and Ecuador’s president declared a state of emergency.

A curfew cloaked the city. Schools shuttered, streets grew eerie, some communities fell into lawlessness in a country that had already experienced more than 8,000 violent deaths in 2023.

Mónica at the Raíces Negras foundation in Guayaquil, where Diakonia provides nutrition to children from ages six months to 12 years. (Photo Courtesy of The Global FoodBanking Network)

So Echeverría, 29, needed to talk to her family about her plan to return the next morning to her work as Project and Quality Coordinator at Ecuador’s oldest food bank, the Banco de Alimentos Diakonia.

“It’s the right moment for you to stop,” her brother insisted.

“Why do you have to go right when everyone else is going left?” her father asked.

“Because that’s how you raised me,” Echeverría replied.

She was thinking of the children who would go hungry. The pregnant women who needed the nutrition. A grandfather she’d met who was caring for his two young grandchildren on a fixed income after their parents died in an accident.

“I know you are going to go,” her mother said quietly. And her 11-year-old daughter said, “Mom, you are always able to handle everything.”

It was decided.

  • A family receives a box of food from Banco de Alimentos Diakonía. (Photo Courtesy Banco de Alimentos Diakonía)
    A family receives a box of food from Banco de Alimentos Diakonía. (Photo Courtesy Banco de Alimentos Diakonía)

Increasing Food Access & Empowering Communities

The Diakonia food bank partners with 180 non-profit groups who distribute about 150 tons of food monthly to some 50,000 people, 95 percent of whom live in Guayaquil.

The Rockefeller Foundation helps support them as part of a $2,831,300, 15-month grant to the The Global FoodBanking Network, targeting 13 food banks in 10 countries to help meet the challenge of a food crisis worsened by climate shocks, global conflict, supply chain disruptions, inflation, and food waste.

In its first six months, the grant supported the food banks in reaching an additional 3,889,496 food-insecure people, rescuing and distributing 33,408,005 kilograms of food, and avoiding an estimated 143,675 metric tons of greenhouse gases by recovering food destined for landfill.

“Alliances from different sectors help food banks everywhere recover more food from the entire value chain and then get it to the people who need it most. That not only increases food access in communities, but it also helps avoid food waste and the greenhouse gas emissions waste generates,” said Maria Teresa Garcia Plata, Latin America regional director for The Global FoodBanking Network, which reached 32 million hungry people globally in 2023.

The Global FoodBanking Network is committed not only to improving food access but empowering local communities, some of which work under great stress.

About 75 percent of the network-member countries experienced climate-related disasters last year, and 35 percent experienced significant civil unrest.

The work for The Rockefeller Foundation has been led by Catherine Bertini, who served 10 years as the Executive Director of the U.N. World Food Programme.

“Throughout my career, I’ve seen firsthand how engaging and empowering women is critical to ending hunger,” Bertini said. “With support from The Global FoodBanking Network, women leaders like Mónica are feeding people facing hunger in the short-term, while building longer-term community resilience.”

  • Recovering vegetables from the field to supply the food bank in Guayaquil, Ecuador (Photo Courtesy of Banco de Alimentos Diakonia)
    Recovering vegetables from the field to supply the food bank in Guayaquil, Ecuador. (Photo Courtesy of Banco de Alimentos Diakonia)

Climate Change Supercharges Food Insecurity

From its lively riverside boardwalk to its skyscrapers, Guayaquil, with a population of about 3 million, is Ecuador’s largest city and commercial hub. In recent years, the Guayas River port has become an exit point for drugs and weapons coming from Colombia and Peru.

But the port also serves the food bank.

Recovering fruits and vegetables from farm fields to supply the food bank in Guayaquil. (Photo Courtesy of The Global FoodBanking Network)

The food bank began rescue operations at the port in 2016, distributing food unable to reach its intended final destination, often because of documentation issues. The Rockefeller Foundation grant is aimed at helping build capacity here, in part through establishing alliances, raising awareness, and expanding donor databases.

As this effort shows, hunger is not just a lack-of-food challenge; it is also a logistics challenge.

Some 900,000 tons of food are wasted or lost yearly throughout Ecuador. About 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty level. The country ranks second in the region for chronic child malnutrition; some 27.2 percent of children are impacted. Food insecurity is heightened by the presence of some 870,000 migrants living in Ecuador, most from Venezuela.

Climate change also impacts food security. In the medium- to long-term, Ecuadorians can expect to see the intensification of extreme climatic events such as El Nino; further retreat of glaciers; more floods and prolonged droughts, and increased transmission of dengue and other tropical diseases.

Why it Matters

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    metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions avoided over last six months through the grant

Despite Dangers, the Work Goes On

After Jan. 9, tensions existed even between neighbors. Echeverría recalled a conversation with a close childhood friend. They’d played together under a mango tree, shared food, been in one another’s homes. Now he’d joined a gang and was manning the checkpoint leading into her neighborhood.

“Luck is not the same for everyone,” he told her.

“We had the same life,” she disagreed. “You just took different decisions.”

“I am thinking how much you are going to have to pay” for protection money, her friend mused.

“I am not paying anything,” Echeverría retorted. “You think what I have is for free, but I work two jobs so I can have what I’ve achieved so far.”

Jan. 10, 2024.

Gangs still shared the streets with soldiers, and Echeverría acknowledge fear when she set off for the food bank.

Key to her motivation for the work is that she personally knows what it’s like to have an empty stomach. “It is important to understand the need,” she said. “I come from a humble home. There were times when I had to skip meals.”

A hand-over of food from the Guayaquil Food Bank. (Photo Courtesy of Banco de Alimentos Diakonía)

Though the food bank director had insisted no one was required to work that day, every single team member showed up.

Echeverría and the director personally delivered food to the three most insecure neighborhoods so no one else would have to.

Each delivery was successful. And the work goes on. From Jan. 9 through the end of the month, Diakonia Food Bank recovered about 149,000 pounds (67,567 kilograms) of food and delivered 19,700 prepared meals and 245,890 food rations.

“To see the face of a child, an adult, an old man with a smile and a full stomach – this became the engine to follow,” Echeverría said. “On Jan. 10, we fed 300 children who otherwise would not have eaten.”