Having grown up in Caracas, Venezuela, Jefferson Alvarez is no stranger to hardship. The co-owner and chef of Cacao, a Kitsilano restaurant specializing in progressive Latin cuisine, remembers how common crime was in his family’s impoverished neighbourhood and how his mom had to make her own milk out of rice to feed her four kids.
That was years and years ago, but when he hears about the deteriorating circumstances in his home country now, Alvarez can’t help but be overcome with emotion.
“For people living there now, you don’t even know if you’re going to make it,” Alvarez says on the line from his restaurant. “It’s really tough. When I came [to Canada in 1995] it was bad, but not this bad. There is no food. I encourage people to Google the supermarkets there. They’re empty.”
Once a prosperous nation, Venezuela is in chaos, its economic and political systems collapsing. Aside from violent protests happening throughout the country and inflation soaring, malnutrition and hunger have become widespread.
Like other Venezuelan natives, Alvarez wanted to help. To that end, Cacao has teamed up with Blue House Organics, a new farm in Pemberton, to launch a fundraising drive to help feed hungry children in Caracas.
Called Venezuelan Freedom Veggies, the effort will direct funds to Fundació Barriga Llena Corazón Contento (Full Belly, Happy Heart), a volunteer initiative led by several renowned South American chefs (including Carlos Garcia, chef-owner of Alto, one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America). Full Belly, Happy Heart operates a daily soup kitchen at the Hospital de Niños JM de Los Ríos, a hospital for children.
Blue House Organics will donate $1 from every $20 harvest box of fresh vegetables sold from now until the end of the growing season. Cacao, meanwhile, is using fresh vegetables from the farm for its Freedom Salad until the end of October. Full proceeds from every salad sold will go to Full Belly, Happy Heart.
“We have all these beautiful vegetables growing on the farm and the people in my home country are starving,” Blue House Organics owner Alejandro J. Sucre said in a statement. An economist and corporate turnaround specialist from Caracas, Sucre writes a regular column for El Universal, a major Venezuelan newspaper. “This is a small gesture, but it is important that we do something to help the children.”
Helping people in Venezuela is harder than people may realize. President Nicolás Maduro continues to hold power despite a vote that most of the global community has called an assault on democracy. There are no emergency appeals authorizing the shipment of food and medicine from international humanitarian groups like the World Health Organization, according to Full Belly, Happy Heart. To counter that reality, donations to citizen-led initiatives are being coordinated through a GoFundMe campaign by Venezuelans abroad.
“Right now, in Caracas, there are a lot of people eating from garbage bins in the streets,” Alto’s Garcia said in a statement. “We’re doing the best we can to help the kids in the hospital and the doctors who treat them, because they don’t have anything to eat either. We make 250 bowls of chicken soup each day. And every day we hope that the country is going to change.”
Blue House Organics harvest boxes are available for purchase online (bluehouseorganics.ca), at the farmgate stand (8184 Pemberton Meadows Road), and at some farmers markets, including downtown Vancouver and Riley Park. Cacao, which has been nominated for Canada’s Best New Restaurants by enRoute Magazine, is located at 1898 West 1st Avenue.