As part of a National Geographic team, my assignment this past July in Nicaragua was to document a school meals program supported by the partnership between the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and Michael Kors’s Watch Hunger Stop initiative.
We spent time in the mountain village of Los Pedernales, a rural region of Jinotega, to photograph families with school-age children.
On our first day at the El Progreso school, we got to see how each family contributes by preparing donated food once a month and serving it to the children. It was there that we met Vani, a lively ten-year-old who soon became our ambassador, introducing us to her family and many members of the village. It was because of this that I chose to photograph her on our last morning in Los Pedernales.
As I arrived early at Vani’s home to capture her morning routine, her mother, Maria, was helping her comb out her wet hair, the window light carving out their shapes in the sparsely furnished home. The house had electricity, but they used natural light while the sun was up. Vani stepped outside to brush her teeth in the spigot as I photographed.
“What about breakfast? Did you already eat?” I asked. Maria looked at me and shrugged. This simple action stopped me. This was not a shrug indicating, “I don’t know,” or “ask Vani.” I hadn’t missed my chance to photograph a family meal—there hadn’t been any breakfast. There was not enough to eat.
I have thought often of Maria’s shrug, and how it communicated not only the dire situation of this family, but also an enduring frustration with the chronic precariousness of many families’ lives in the area. Poverty and food insecurity exist in landscapes of natural richness.
“Everything grows here; you just put a seed in the ground,” one farmer told me. But like nearly half of the families in the village, Vani’s family does not own even a small plot for a garden. Her father, Juan, is a “jornalero” or day laborer. Thin with ropy muscles, he does whatever needs to be done in the fields: picking coffee, harvesting corn, caring for livestock. Employment is seasonal and wages low. Serious blights, like coffee rust, reduce the yields of the main cash crops and in turn slash the earnings of people like Juan. He works the ground of others, and is dependent on wages to buy the same food that he picks.
Michael Kors asked Halle Berry to go to Nicaragua on behalf of Watch Hunger Stop. There she joined the United Nations World Food Programme to visit schools and meet children helped by the campaign.
Establishing a steady food source, like WFP’s school meals, bolsters children’s diets. They come to school to be fed intellectually and nutritionally. The fact that the community takes care of the program and distributes the meals in school strongly knits the fabric of the village together. Everyone takes care of the food, and everyone benefits.
Vani’s mother’s shrug has stayed with me, not as the gesture of resignation, but as a call to action from a proud family in rural Nicaragua.
This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.