Barranquilla, Colombia — Six-year-old Leidi arrives every weekday to a schoolhouse door unlike any other. The Metropolitan School's main entry is Gate 37 of this Caribbean coastal city's 60,000-seat stadium, one of the largest soccer venues in all of Colombia. From there, she and other students descend a flight of steps to a stretch of hot and dingy classrooms wedged beneath the stands.
It's both an unusual and uncomfortable site for an all-grades school accommodating two daily shifts of more than 1,000 students each. Twenty-one years after debuting as a sports academy, the place is literally falling apart — crumbling cement walls and a widespread rat infestation are among the most telltale signs.
Parents in this low-income neighborhood successfully lobbied the government for a new school, currently slated to break ground in February. School administrators say they are waiting until then to unwrap the last of the shiny new kitchen equipment donated to them last June by Mercy Corps. Providing "comedores escolares," or school kitchens, is part of agency efforts to increase food security in some of Colombia's poorest urban neighborhoods — the refuge of many rural families who've fled the violence ravaging the Colombian countryside.
At the Metropolitan School, Mercy Corps and local partner Funprofes made it easier for administrators to feed Leidi and her classmates by furnishing the school's cafeteria with a refrigerator, a stove, water cooler, chairs, dishware and various kitchenware like pots and colanders.
"Before, we didn't have the ability to cook on-site," says school coordinator Berledys Gutiérrez. "This equipment, combined with the nutritional trainings we've received, helps us improve the quality of the food we serve."
Although Leidi's family isn't among the estimated 60,000 households in Barranquilla that have been displaced from other parts of Colombia, she and her seven-year-old brother, Jesus, are no less at risk. Their father finds only occasional jobs as a house cleaner and their mother doesn't work. "We always have food," says Leidi's stepmother, Luzmere, "but sometimes it's only very little."
Thanks to the new cafeteria equipment, and to a local patron who covers her meal fees, Leidi arrives at school to a small breakfast of juice with bread or arepa, a popular street snack that resembles a thick cornmeal pancake. For lunch, she usually eats chicken or eggs with rice.
Gutiérrez says the meals help students stay focused on learning — which is critical, of course, to fulfilling Leidi's aspirations of becoming a doctor. In explaining her reluctance to unwrap all the cookware the school received from Mercy Corps, Gutiérrez used the Spanish verb "estrenar," which means to use for the first time. In the new school, she says, "we're hoping for a fresh start."