Mexican hunger crusade raises questions

Associated Press
In this Feb. 11, 2014 photo, a man sits in a community kitchen dining area in Cochoapa El Grande, Mexico. The kitchen is supposed to open from Monday to Friday and provide free food for breakfast and lunch, but on this day no food was being prepared. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

View gallery

COCHOAPA EL GRANDE, Mexico (AP) — On a recent weekday afternoon, half a dozen children crossed the main square on their way home from school in this dusty farming town of 2,600 people high in the pine-covered mountains of southern Mexico.

Their bellies ached from malnourishment and their arms were as skinny as those of children half their 8 or 9 years of age.

A few feet away a menu pinned to the wall of a government-run kitchen promised cookies, eggs with meat, rice and juice. But the kitchen was closed and the five large tables were empty, with dozens of plastic chairs stacked against a wall. Residents said it had only been operating sporadically since it opened, with no explanation from the officials who were supposed to be running it.

More than a year after President Enrique Pena Nieto launched what he called a national crusade against hunger, the government says 3 million Mexicans are eating better. However, independent experts say that number is questionable and the crusade against hunger appears to be doing far less than advertised.

On visits to three of the community kitchens supposedly operating in Guerrero, one of Mexico's poorest and most hunger-plagued states, Associated Press reporters found not a single one in operation. State officials said they had no knowledge of a fourth community kitchen in the city of Acapulco, despite federal government claims that one had been set up.

Since independence more than two centuries ago, Mexico has suffered from persistently high levels of poverty and economic inequality, but Pena Nieto is the first president to focus so intently on hunger, which his administration calls the most pressing problem facing the country's poorest citizens.

In the 400 poorest and most malnourished of the country's 2,400 municipalities, the Pena Nieto administration has been trying to enroll more people in existing social programs such as Opportunities, which provides a small monthly stipend to qualifying poor Mexicans. The only completely new element of the program is the creation of government-run cafeterias known as community kitchens.

The United Nations defines a hungry person as someone who for at least a year is not able to eat enough to cover their basic energy needs. The Mexican government has a much looser definition, saying that a hungry person is anyone who is in extreme poverty and suffers from what it calls "a lack of food." And the Mexican government acknowledges that for at least another year there will be no way to measure whether the program is actually addressing the problems of those it's supposed to benefit — 7 million Mexicans the government says are suffering from a combination of extreme poverty and malnourishment even as the country also suffers from among the world's highest rates of obesity.

"Our task will be measuring the situation out in the field to verify that this is true," said Gonzalo Hernandez Licona, head of the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy.

That hasn't stopped the government from claiming success.

"After a year it's very encouraging to see and appreciate the progress, that out of these 7 million Mexicans, 3 million Mexicans today, a year later, are assured of better nutrition," Pena Nieto said in late January.

Critics say many of the government's claims about the crusade's success are based simply on the continued enrollment of Mexicans in programs that began under previous administrations. Some of those enrollment figures have even been dropping, raising further questions about the 3 million figure.

Critics also charge that the Pena Nieto government is claiming a dramatic achievement without real proof, a preference for style over substance that spills over into a variety of areas, from security to political reforms.

"There's been success in the sense of passing controversial legislative reforms, but there haven't been any results yet," said Edna Jaime, director of the think-tank Mexico Evaluates. "We aren't seeing any evidence that things are going better."

The government says Guerrero was the first state to receive community kitchens to help the already poor state recover from the damage wreaked by Hurricane Manuel last year. The kitchens are supposed to open from Monday to Friday and provide free food for breakfast and lunch.

On a recent morning, no food was being prepared and no residents showed up all day in Cochoapa El Grande. Another kitchen in the nearby village of San Miguel Amoltepec, was closed.

The federal secretary of social development says the administration also has installed two kitchens in the city of Acapulco. A recent visit by an AP reporter found one out of service and state officials disavowed any knowledge of a second. Officials and residents said the three kitchens seen by the AP had operated at some point, but not consistently.

Florentino Vazquez Lopez, a 44-year-old farm worker, said he occasionally sent some of his six children to the community kitchen in Cochoapa el Grande, but kitchen employees demanded a fee of two or three pesos from each person, or firewood from those without cash.

Residents of San Miguel Amoltepec, a 20-minute drive away on a narrow dirt road, said they were similarly asked to pay a small fee in cash or firewood. Some said the kitchen had closed two days earlier after it ran out of food.

Much of the food is canned and shipped from major cities, a practice experts and indigenous advocates called a missed opportunity to help local agriculture.

"It's a charity model that in some ways perpetuates cycles of poverty," said Xaviera Cabada, director of the nutritional food campaign for the group Consumer Power.

Regardless, say social scientists such as Gerardo Esquivel, a College of Mexico economist, such figures are a bad way of measuring whether people are actually being helped. Instead, officials could measure the physical effects of nutrition, such as anemia, weight and other indicators of proper diet.

"Up until now," Esquivel said, "all we have are actions, program and resources dedicated to creating more people receiving aid."


AP writer Jose Antonio Rivera in Acapulco contributed to this report.

View Comments (23)

Recommended for You

  • Luggage piece found on French island near possible MH370 debris

    Part of a bag was found Thursday on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion not far from plane debris which has fuelled speculation it may be from missing flight MH370. "The piece of luggage was here since yesterday but nobody really paid attention," said Johnny Begue, a member of a local…

  • David Cassidy prepares to auction Florida mansion

    FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Like many of his baby boomer peers with grown children and debts to settle, one-time heartthrob David Cassidy is looking to downsize.

    Associated Press46 mins ago
  • Eight family members decapitated in north Mexico

    Eight people from the same family, including two minors, were kidnapped by masked gunmen and their decapitated bodies were found days later in northern Mexico, authorities said Wednesday. The bodies were found after a ninth member of the Martinez family escaped Sunday's abduction near Casa Quemada,…

  • China to prosecute former top officer for graft

    China will prosecute a former top military officer for corruption, the government said on Thursday, the second senior officer to be investigated, as President Xi Jinping widens his campaign against deep-rooted graft in the country. Guo Boxiong, 73, was a vice chairman of the powerful Central…

  • View

    Creeping vines, abandoned village (20 photos)

    Just a handful of people still live in a village on Shengshan Island east of Shanghai that was once home to more than 2,000 fishermen. Every day hundreds of tourists visit Houtouwan, making their way on narrow footpaths past tumbledown houses overtaken by vegetation. The remote village, on one of…

    Yahoo News
  • Colorado theater shooter's dad saw wide-eyed smirk before

    CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) — James Holmes came home on winter break from graduate school looking haggard and making odd facial expressions, but his father didn't suspect at the time that he was descending into mental illness.

    Associated Press
  • An American Dentist Killed Zimbabwe’s Famous Lion

    Cecil the lion, a famous black-maned resident of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, died at the hands of an American dentist, conservationists claim. “Mr. Palmer shot Cecil with a bow and arrow but this shot didn't kill him,” Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, said in…
  • Family Pet-Sitter Helps Herself To Homeowner's Possessions

    DEAR ABBY: A trusted and beloved family member who takes care of my cats -- and therefore has a key to my house -- has been stealing things like cleaning supplies, knickknacks, family pictures, etc. Most of them have little monetary value. But imagine my surprise when I spotted some of my missing…

    Dear Abby
  • Chicago man cleared after 17 years in prison shot dead

    CHICAGO (AP) — A Chicago man who served 17 years in prison for murder before being cleared of the crime has been shot and killed almost three years after being released from prison, police said Wednesday.

    Associated Press
  • Dashcam catches off-duty cop threatening to put 'hole in head' of driver

    Technically Incorrect: A Massachusetts driver makes a wrong turn. What happens next, all filmed on his dashcam, has led to an investigation. And yes, it's now on YouTube.

  • Russia reassures Israel over Iran nuclear deal

    Russian President Vladimir Putin told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday that the deal on Iran's nuclear program would improve security in the Middle East and guaranteed that Tehran would not acquire nuclear arms. Israel plans to lobby the U.S. Congress not to approve the…

  • Play

    Body cam footage from Cincinnati shooting contradicts official story

    A University of Cincinnati police officer has been indicted for murder after body camera footage contradicted his official story outlining the events that led to the shooting death of unarmed Cincinnati driver Samuel Dubose.

    Reuters Videos
  • Cobra caught after taking residence in Houston luxury condo complex

    Police and animal control officers captured a venomous albino snake that had camped out in the hallway of a luxury Houston condominium building and prevented frightened residents from using their front doors, authorities said on Thursday. The two-foot (60-cm) long albino monocled cobra was captured…

    Reuters37 mins ago
  • Hidden Security Cameras Are Shocking Surprise For Daughter

    DEAR ABBY: I'm a 19-year-old woman in college who still lives with my parents. I found out something several weeks ago that's bothering me, and I need advice badly. Years ago, after a robbery, my parents installed security cameras outside our house. I knew about them because they were visible. But…

    Dear Abby
  • Killer deal: Amazon will pay you $10 to buy a $30 Google Chromecast

    Google’s little Chromecast dongle is pretty awesome. The device plugs into the HDMI port on any HDTV or monitor and instantly gives users access to movies, TV shows, videos, music, photos and more that can be streamed from any Android device. Best of all, perhaps, the Chromecast is wonderfully…

    BGR News
  • The Latest: Police: Hate crime not ruled out over MLK flags

    ATLANTA (AP) — The latest on the investigation into Confederate flags found at the Ebenezer Baptist Church near the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta:

    Associated Press
  • Internet mauls dentist accused of illegal kill of popular lion

    Technically Incorrect: Walter Palmer, a dentist in Minnesota, has his Yelp entry attacked by those not fond of his allegedly illegal killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe.

  • Goat's head nearly severed in brutal knife attack in Idaho

    A small goat was nearly decapitated and another goat died from a "heinous" knife attack on the animals in a fenced and locked site where they had been placed to graze on weeds in northern Idaho, a police spokeswoman said on Wednesday. A third goat is being treated for a knife wound in its back from…