Peru's Porridge in 30-Ton Portions
Bernardo Wagner aims to feed 100,000 children a day in a controversial private program. 'GIANT POT' INITIATIVE
LIMA, PERU — LAST year, when Peru's economic stabilization program sent food prices to four and five times their previous prices overnight, the plight of Lima's ever-hungrier children moved a local businessman to come up with an ingenious solution.He converted one of his company's huge mixers, intended to manufacture industrial glue, into a giant cooking pot capable of producing a thick porridge for 10,000 children a day. Bernardo Wagner, local managing director of the United States-owned H.B. Fuller Company, based in St. Paul, Minn., embarked on a feeding program he thought would be temporary. It has now evolved into the most ambitious single feeding project in Peru, aiming to provide all the daily recommended protein for 100,000 undernourished children under the age of 6 in metropolitan Lima. In the southern Lima suburb of Chorrillos, Mr. Wagner proudly shows off the second stage of his "Giant Pot" initiative - a huge new 30-ton-capacity stainless steel cooker. "It's a message from a North American company that believes in the free market," he says. "Efficiency is important, but we must also realize that certain values are nonnegotiable." Across town is Huaycan - one of Lima's newest and poorest shanty towns. It is peopled by migrants from the high Andes fleeing poverty and the terrorism that has cost more than 20,000 Peruvian lives in 11 years. Most of Huaycan's inhabitants live in precarious dwellings of straw matting and bamboo sticks. There is no running water, no drainage, and little food. But once a day an elderly blue-and-red truck trundles up the pot-holed track. At the sound of the horn, ragged children materialize, eagerly helping unload large blue containers of Wagner's porridge. Agapita is a refugee from the Central Andes whose husband was killed by Shining Path terrorists. This mother of five young children says the daily appearance of the porridge truck seems heaven-sent. "I take in washing, but I can't make enough to feed my children," she says, with tears in her eyes. Her two youngest children, peering from behind her traditional, full skirts, shyly smile their assent - "Yes, the porridge is good." The H.B. Fuller "reactor" that churns out food for 10,000 youngsters stands alongside a twin machine that still produces glue for a heavily-recessed local market. Each machine holds 3.5 tons. The porridge recipe calls for 330 pounds each of soya and corn flour, 440 pounds of sugar, half a ton of milk, and 260 gallons of water. After an hour, the porridge is ready for distribution. The idea was born a year ago, soon after President Alberto Fujimori's new government took office and immediately embarked on a strict program to stabilize the economy. Inflation last year reached almost 400 percent. Five days after the "Fujishock," Wagner set up his factory kitchen in the company's dining room. But within days, demand had outstripped the capacity of the H.B. Fuller kitchen - and Wagner had the idea of converting a glue "reactor" into a giant pressure cooker. Most initial funding came from Wagner's parent company. US-owned Southern Peru Copper Corporation has also helped, but most Peruvian businesses have hung back. The reaction of one Peruvian businessman, prominent in the Peruvian-American Chamber of Commerce, was typical: m against handing out food," he said. "All you are doing is encouraging these people to produce more children." "We need to change an entire mentality in Peru," Wagner says. "I'm a capitalist, but the kind of capitalism I see here is a monstrosity." In Peru, Wagner is considered an unusual businessman. Some colleagues say he is mad, others call him a saint. The grandson of a German immigrant, educated in Chile, he served for 14 years in the Peruvian navy. He received a master's degree in Nicaragua, and lived in Venezuela and the US before taking over H.B. Fuller's Peruvian operation in 1985. Surprisingly, perhaps, Wagner's approach to solving Peru's feeding problems has aroused opposition from international relief agencies. Such agencies work with comedores populares, or "people's canteens" where local women organize themselves to cook and serve communal meals. LEADING food programs in Peru are administered by CARE, Caritas, and Prisma. The bulk of these agencies' financing comes from the US Agency for International Development. This year USAID is supplying about 100,000 metric tons of foodstuffs in more than 5,000 comedores populares. "We are committed to supporting community organizations in their own initiatives," says George Baldino, head of the USAID food programs in Peru. Such community groups "may on occasion be a less efficient way of tackling the feeding problem, but we feel so much is to be gained from people developing their own methods." One international agency worker was more outspoken in her criticisms of the "Giant Pot," and its potential to overshadow already operating soup kitchens: "The idea of a lorry coming in and dishing out food is completely inimical to all the self-help and community effort we're trying to promote through the comedores," she says. There is, however, no immediate conflict since in the recently settled area where Wagner is currently operating there are no organized food-distribution programs. Wagner argues that "the first priority is to feed these children. To do it in a socially acceptable way is wonderful, but it comes second." His hard-headed business approach has reduced to 5 cents the cost of a 15-gram helping of soya-based porridge. The 30-ton Chorrillos reactor Wagner is planning will cut costs again. "The developed countries are developed largely because they apply economies of scale," Wagner says. "From here, we'll be able to feed 100,000 children a day in Lima's southern cone." Critics say this is the government's job. "But the government has so many problems, so few resources," Wagner replies. "Businessmen have the technology, the organization, and the capital to solve this problem - they just need the humanity." USAID backing for the project is still under consideration. "Let's respect both approaches to feeding," says USAID's Mr. Baldino. "An idea like Mr. Wagner's could complement the comedores populares without destroying all they have achieved." Wagner is still working to persuade his fellow capitalists. "When they see it working, perhaps they'll be convinced."