photo by Vicky Triviño: breakfast offered by Gota de Leche Foundation at the Pio XII public primary school

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The foundation Gota de Leche provides healthy breakfasts to children who suffer in different ways, from hunger or obesity, due to the impact of poverty on their diets. A visit to two schools shows us this reality.

As my eyes scanned over the cafeteria at Colegio Pío XII, a public elementary school in the Macarena district of Seville, one little boy caught my attention. Juan sat at the end of the table, eating his ham and olive oil bocadillo with much hesitation while the rest of the children nearly inhaled theirs, begging for seconds. He didn’t speak to his peers and when it was time to leave for class he didn’t move. It took the firm grip of his teacher and much convincing before Juan finally decided to leave his chair. Juan is one of the many students who come to school on an empty stomach.

His breakfast is provided for him by Gota de Leche, a foundation that has been working to reduce infant mortality rates and childhood hunger in Seville since 1906. I was lucky enough to meet and work with Vicky Triviño, who is in charge of Human Resources and the Desayunos Saludables, or Healthy Breakfasts program at Gota de Leche.

On any given morning, Colegio Pío XII will serve around 20 children from the ages of 3 to 12 with a bocadillo (the popular Spanish sandwich) of various meats and cheeses. With an unemployment rate of almost 24 percent in Spain and 26 percent in Seville, it is easy to understand why there are so many families (including migrants from Africa or South America and nomadic gypsies) that cannot afford to feed their children.

Another thing I noticed about the cafeteria in Colegio Pío XII was that there were a few place settings with empty chairs. I asked Vicky Triviño how many students typically come for breakfast and her response opened my eyes: “We’re missing five students. Every morning it is different. If the parent doesn’t wake up in time to take their child to school, their child misses breakfast. Some days they make it and other days they don’t.”

The children that were eating varied in size, shape and age, which Vicky went on to explain. “It is not only subnutrition we are dealing with, but also malnutrition. Some children are larger than others not because they eat more but because they are being fed inexpensive foods with little nutritional value and lots of fat.”

Here lies a general problem of today’s youth, not just in Spain, but across the world. In Spain alone, 26 percent of children are overweight and almost 14 percent are considered obese. The highest rates are in the regions of Andalusia and the Canary Islands, in the south, where the income is the lowest. “There are many reasons that have created this situation,” explains the Spanish Agency of Food Safety in its Infant Feeding Guide. “Our country has suffered great changes in the last decades that have largely impacted the type of diet we consume. Traditional diets have been superseded by diets with higher caloric quantities, which means more fats and more added sugar… with a decrease in consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes.”

However, according to the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, Spain – along with southern Italy and Greece – is noted for having a diet with the most beneficial health effects and decreased mortality rates: the Mediterranean diet. More of a culinary way of life than a diet, it consists of high amounts of olive oil, legumes, unrefined cereals, fruits, vegetables, fish and moderate consumption of dairy and meat products. The large quantities of monounsaturated fats, dietary fibers and antioxidants are said to be large contributing factors to a long, healthy life, while an emphasis on “daily exercise and freshness, balance and pleasure in food” completes the equilibrium of a healthy lifestyle, says French-American author Mireille Guiliano.

But maintaining this lifestyle is easier said than done, and the growling, bloated stomachs of Seville’s lower class children prove that. “In Seville, the malnutrition is from the lack of healthy habits and because there are families that are displaced from other countries where the diet is very poor,” said Triviño. She added that some children of gypsy ethnicity “have bad eating habits and they lack economic resources.”

On a separate occasion, I visited Colegio San José Obrero, another elementary school in the Macarena district. Similarly, the majority of children in the breakfast program there were Spanish of gypsy descent. I met three energetic girls – Celia, Alejandra and Saray. Celia and Alejandra are sisters, 6 and 4 years old respectively. As I watched her eat her ham and olive oil bocadillo, Alejandra gave me a look of monotony. I asked her what was wrong and she waved her bread in front of me and shook her head, signaling that she didn’t like it. It was hard for me to grasp the idea that a child that looked hungry could turn down food. Her skinny frame suggested malnourishment, yet she did not complain about still being hungry after throwing away almost half of her sandwich. Creating a habit of eating healthier food takes time for a child, especially when the child is so used to eating junk food such as potato chips and candy. Alejandra may not have enjoyed the bocadillo because it was more bland and less greasy and rich, but it contains the nutrients she needs to maintain a full stomach and strong mind throughout the day.

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