It was mid-March and restaurateurs Francie Nguyen, Jimmy Plouff and Frankie Victoria Bañuelos Estrada watched as theirs and other local businesses closed as the coronavirus began to spread in Mexico.
Tourism in Puerto Vallarta – one of Mexico’s premier tourist destinations – had abruptly stopped and thousands of local people were out of work, with no end in sight.
“We thought we should do something to help,” recalled Nguyen. Plouff and Bañuelos had already closed their restaurant, Tunnel Row Barbecue, and turned it into a food pantry for the neighborhood, but wanted to do more.
Pooling their expertise, resources and food know-how, they started the Vallarta Food Bank with a simple, direct goal: that no one would go hungry. A humble beginning of giving away six despensas, or food packages, has blossomed into a weekly distribution of 3,000 packages of basic necessities, delivered to remote villages, handed out at the food bank site or distributed through other local agencies and soup kitchens. The non-profit, volunteer-based organization’s mission is “to make sure everyone has food on their table.”
“The poverty that surrounds paradise is overwhelming,” said Plouff. “So many people come here year after year and never see this side of Mexico.”
Bañuelos has been the major force in finding distributors and negotiating the best prices. The food bank now buys up to 15 tonnes of food each week, purchasing in bulk and then portioning rice, beans, lentils, pasta, oatmeal, tortilla flour, milk, tuna, oil, sugar, fresh vegetables and paper and hygiene products into individual despensas that end up costing about 120 pesos (US $5.40) per 10-kilo bag.
“This month, we’re spending $73,000 to make 12,500 despensas, which is the equivalent of 350,000 meals for the families in need,” said Nguyen. “That’s a huge amount of money, and we’re grateful for every cent.”
A recent phone call from the mayor’s wife on behalf of the DIF family services agency illustrated how great the need is and how fast it’s growing. She said 150,000 people have asked them for help, and that their system is overwhelmed.
“We’ll do what we can but we can’t feed 150,000 people,” said Nguyen, obviously distressed. “We’re growing to meet the need, trying to feed 3,000 families a week. As long as we can we’ll keep up the fight against hunger” with people’s help.
Vallarta Food Bank functions with a detailed registration process and database to ensure those in need are taken care of on a weekly basis. Each family then receives a card for five weeks of despensas, at which time they’re evaluated again. Packing, organizing and deliveries are made by a network of 60+ volunteers who work together as an efficient team. Plouff stressed that their organization is transparent, and detailed financial information is updated regularly on their website.
“We honor all financial support by keeping our operations 100% volunteer-based with only 5% going to rental, utilities and non-food supplies,” said Plouff. “This allows us to distribute the equivalent of five meals for every U.S. dollar we receive.”
The challenge now is the rainy season, already predicted to be worse than ever before. Those who live in or who have been to Vallarta in the summer know the rains are torrential, for days at a stretch. That’s why the food bank created a “rainy season pledge,” a special three-month commitment to help during this especially difficult time. More information about how this works can be found on the website.
While they’ve done and are doing so much, the Vallarta Food Bank is also looking ahead to the future. They’ve just signed a long-term lease on a property and are busy remodeling even while they continue to function. Plouff and Bañuelos donated all the kitchen equipment, furniture and air conditioners from their restaurant to the project.
“We decided that what Vallarta needs more than a great BBQ restaurant is what Vallarta Food Bank is quickly becoming,” said Plouff, adding that Tunnel Road Barbecue will not reopen. “We will pour all of our hearts and time into making Vallarta Food Bank a permanent fixture of hope and light for the community that has given us so much.”
Now that they have a permanent location, the food bank wants to improve their food programs to include these initiatives:
- Soup kitchens. Instead of a despensa, families can get hot food six days a week.
- Food market. Recipients can use points to purchase their choice of food and necessities specific to what their family needs.
- Food system collaborative. To support local agriculture by partnering with local food growers to provide and trade fresh food at the market.
- Elderly box program. Monthly delivery of a box of food and necessities to the elderly community.
- Food scholarships. Clients receive “food scholarships” when they commit to programs to improve their job skills.
“Our vision doesn’t end with providing emergency food assistance,” said Plouff. “We want to help improve the livelihoods of families in Vallarta. Our goal is to create a community center where anyone can sign up for skill-training programs to improve their job prospects, like English, electrical, carpentry, sewing, plumbing, and entrepreneurship.”
“We feel like we need to help this community to be more self-sustainable, and not to depend on just tourism,” added Nguyen.
Since they started the food bank, they’ve been asked the same question over and over: “How can I help?”
“If you’re able, we’d love it if you could make a donation,” said Plouff. “The direct impact of your contributions is simple; the more funds we receive, the more despensas we can pack and distribute. The need never slows down.”
“We will be here as a promise of hope to the vulnerable population of Vallarta,” he continued. “We cannot do what we do without the support of our many generous donors and volunteers working hard behind the scenes. We remain mission focused: no one goes hungry. Thank you to all the people and businesses that have made this possible. We will remain #VallartaStrong.”
• For more information or to make a donation by credit card or PayPal, visit www.vallartafoodbank.com.
Mexico News Daily