Snacks at Some Cuban Childcare Centers Have Been Reduced to a Piece of Boiled Sweet Potato and Water

The Food Monitor Program points to low food reserves in government warehouses.

Children spend about eight hours a day at the center and should be getting a balanced lunch and an afternoon snack / Little Volodya Childcare Center

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Miguel García, Holguín, 8 June 2024 — The current economic crisis is having a serious impact on childcare centers in the city of Holguín. Children’s lunches have not included any source of protein for more than two weeks, only rice and dried peas. Afternoon snacks now only amount to a glass of water and a piece of bread, several parents told 14ymedio.

“We thought this was something would only last a day or two but the staff tells us there’s no indication things will get better, that their food supplies have basically run out,” says Daymara, whose daughter attends the Little Volodya Childcare Center. “Every day we have to send her off with a a sausage, a boiled egg or something else to round out her lunch.”

The children, who spend about eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, at the center, are supposed to receive a well-balanced lunch and an afternoon snack during that time. However, Cuba’s current economic crisis has been limiting the variety and quality of food they receive. “The rice is very low quality, the peas don’t taste like anything because they have almost no seasoning, and the afternoon bread is inedible because it’s so hard,” she adds.

A recent investigation by the Food Monitor Program, an independent observatory that researches food sovereignty and security, has been warning of the problem. After interviewing students and family members in four of the island’s provinces between January and March of 2023, the organization reported, “Low food reserves in government warehouses led to a shortage of protein in rations that were served at lunch while salads and fruits were completely absent.”

“I don’t know what I am going to do because I don’t have the money for a private daycare center”

“The other day my daughter told me that all they had given her was a piece of boiled sweet potato and some water,” explained Daymara. “I don’t know what I am going to do because I don’t have the money for a private daycare center and I can’t afford to keep sending her off with a hot dog or an egg every day. The last carton of eggs cost me almost 3,000 pesos. That’s 100 pesos apiece.”

In response to the meager rations, some families in Holguín have decided not to send their children to daycare centers for the time being. For many, however, that is not an option. “I live alone with my three-year-old grandson because my daughter left for Mexico to see if she could make it to the United States. I am physically impaired and it took a lot of effort on my part to get him into this daycare center,” says 72-year-old Raquel.

For the last few years, there has been a growing social divide in Cuba between those who can afford to put their children in private daycare centers, which have better sanitary conditions and fewer children, and those who depend on state-run facilities, which are marked by deteriorating infrastructure, the exodus of qualified staff and problems with food shortages.

When the boy goes to daycare, that’s when I do all my housework and go shopping for food,” explains the retiree. “But then he comes home very hungry. He tells me he didn’t want to eat lunch because it smelled bad, because it wasn’t good.” Raquel describes the moment when her grandson gets home: “He’s like a caged lion that is let loose. He runs to the refrigerator to see what he can find.”

“These days they’re very lethargic, like they’ve been anesthetized. Well, if they’re hungry, of course they’re not going to feel like playing or laughing much.”

The grandmother explains what it is like to pick up the boy from childcare every afternoon. “When you’re outside, you don’t hear the all the commotion like before. It used to be that, when you looked through the windows, they would be running and jumping. These days they’re very lethargic, like they’ve been anesthetized. Well, if they’re hungry, of course they’re not going to feel like playing or laughing much.”

The situation families in Holguín are experiencing is not an isolated case. Recently, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) included Cuba in its report on severe childhood poverty for the first time. It reported that 9% of the island’s children suffer from serious poverty and do not receive only two of the eight foods considered essential for good nutrition.

The UNICEF report, on which the official Cuban press has not yet commented, adds that 33% of minors (anyone aged five or younger) are living in moderate poverty. This means they have access to three and four of these foods. One does not need data from an international organization like UNICEF, however, to understand the scope of the problem. Just walking through the island’s streets is enough to notice that many children are suffering from significant weight loss and malnutrition.

Daymara does not believe the solution is for every family to send their children off with some sort of protein to round out their lunch. “There are households that can’t afford to do that,” she says. “One child might pull out a sausage but another child wouldn’t have any.” She believes it is a question of investment priorities. There is no doubt in her mind what should be at the top of any list. “Taking care of the children, giving them a good, balanced diet, because they are the future.”


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