Colombia's imperfect potatoes find purpose at Venezuela border

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Nueva Ilusión cooks nutritious meals for Venezuelan asylum-seekers and migrants with produce grown by Colombian farmers. Photo by: Teresa Welsh / Devex

CÚCUTA, Colombia — A covered truck packed with potatoes pulls up in front of the feeding center on a busy street on the outskirts of Cúcuta. Hefty sacks are hoisted onto shoulders and carried back to the kitchen through the lunchtime crowd of clients sitting at plastic tables, finishing off plates of rice, lentils, meat, and vegetables.

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These potatoes traveled 12 hours via truck from Boyacá, a department in central Colombia and one of the most fertile areas in the country. Grown by Colombian farmers, the potatoes were sent to the border to feed the Venezuelans who depend on these kitchens for access to meals each day.

Colombia is currently hosting an estimated 1.7 million people who have fled the collapse in Venezuela. Kitchens like this one, Nueva Ilusión, have been a lifeline for families settled in or passing through the border city of Cúcuta.

As the Colombian government imposes strict measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, meals provided by the facility will become even more vital to those at the border who are seeing other services in the area get cut off. Gatherings of more than five people are prohibited, so the kitchen is providing food using a “take out” model where one member of a family can come pick up meals.

Patricia Salguero and her husband run Nueva Ilusión, which is affiliated with chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen, an NGO that provides meals during humanitarian emergencies all over the world. Because other kitchens in the area have closed over the past several days due to coronavirus restrictions, Nueva Ilusión is currently serving 2,000 meals a day, including to 600 children.

The couple is Colombian, but spent 23 years living in Venezuela during their own country’s period of prolonged unrest.

“We believe all of Venezuela has suffered enormously,” said Salguero, who runs the kitchen — often working from 4 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. — out of “brotherhood” and “for the health of all the people that come here,” she added.

As part of a partnership with World Central Kitchen and smallholder-focused agribusiness Acceso Colombia, Salguero’s kitchen receives fresh produce from Colombian farmers so they offer nutritious, varied meals.

“So many kids coming from Venezuela are undernourished,” Salguero said. “We see that they have benefited from being able to eat fresh food.”

Farmers feeding asylum-seekers and migrants

Many smallholders did not previously have access to formal markets for their crops, preventing them from maximizing income and ensuring they were paid a fair price.

Acceso, which provides scale-up support and relief from start-up costs, links farmers to supermarket chains like Éxito, the largest in Colombia, ensuring their crops will be purchased and sold to consumers.

“It’s ensured that you’re going to sell the product and it’s a quality product, so they pay a better price,” farmer Florentino Medina said. “With Acceso, we make 50% more than when we sold at the marketplace.”

Acceso provides technical assistance and access to seeds for a wide range of crops grown by farmers in the mountainous department of Boyacá and the coastal region near Barranquilla. The organization has a potato specialist that provides technical assistance on potato varieties, conducting research on the best types of seeds for the region and the types with the most consumer demand. Colombia has over 50 varieties of potatoes, and Acceso wants to help farmers grow those that can garner them the best price.

The agribusiness purchases crops from smallholders, which are then sent to a processing facility in nearby Ventaquemada where potatoes are machine washed and sorted according to size and quality. Depending upon current demand from Acceso’s customers, potatoes of a similar size are bagged while others will be sold loose and unwashed. Before, those that did not meet those specifications for commercial sale were sold in local markets or sometimes went to waste.

But starting last April, imperfect looking but edible potatoes began arriving at the kitchens in Cúcuta.

“If the potato is between 60 and 80 grams and it on the outside looks well, it goes to the supermarket because it’s more expensive,” said Juan Diego Rueda, associate director of Acceso Colombia. “If it has the same size but maybe has some scratches or something, we can send it to the feeding [program].”

Potatoes are sorted at this facility in Ventaquemada and those that can't be sold to supermarkets will be sent to the Colombian border to feed Venezuelan asylum-seekers and migrants. Photo by: Teresa Welsh / Devex

Rueda said that last year, Acceso felt it had to do something to address the worsening hunger and malnutrition crisis among Venezuelans on the border. So far, Acceso has donated more than 480 metric tons of fruits and vegetables that were made into 4.3 million nutritious meals for 251,000 Venezuelan asylum-seekers and migrants, according to figures shared by the agribusiness.

While potatoes are 50% of Acceso’s trading volume in 2019, they are not the only crop the agribusiness sends to the feeding kitchens. Varying quantities of onions, lemons, carrots, beets, plums, plantains, pumpkins, cucumbers, lentils, avocados, oranges, broccoli, and cauliflower also provide nutrition and dietary diversity.

“We try to send a very good mix of products so they can do different things,” Rueda said.

In addition to kitchens in Cúcuta, Acceso also provides produce to facilities in the Colombian cities of Rioacha and Barranquilla, and in Zulia, Venezuela, through a partnership with the Wayuu Taya Foundation.

Rueda said Acceso is looking for ways to serve more asylum-seekers and migrants given the rapid downsizing of many humanitarian services on the border because of COVID-19 restrictions. La Casa de Paso Divinia Providencia, another kitchen that received fresh produce from Acceso, is closed because it cannot meet the requirements to keep gatherings to less than five people. Some people who had been receiving meals there must now walk 1.5 hours to Nueva Ilusión, which is working to meet the demand in the area.

“We want to keep going,” Rueda said. “Women and children are the key beneficiaries and are the most vulnerable.”

Editor’s note: The reporter’s travel was facilitated by Acceso. Devex retains editorial control of all content.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.

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