The day began at PriceSmart in Zapote, a district in southeastern San José. Mitch Zychowski, 59, from Pennsylvania, in the United States, entered the giant discount food store with his business partner.
At the entrance, the two met a Tico couple, Miguel Acosta and Alejandra Arguedas – a pastor and his wife from San Miguel de Desamparados, south of San José The group grabbed two large platform carts and made their way up and down the aisles of the bulk goods store, grabbing bags and boxes of food.
“We need 30 bags of rice, the big ones,” Zychowski said to two young helpers. “Get a bunch of those beans, too. Mucho, mucho! This has to last for a while.”
When the crew finally reached the checkout counter, with food stacked beyond the handles of the five-foot-long metal pushcarts, the register rang up a total of more than $2,000 worth of snacks, fruits, vegetables and staples, such as rice and beans, as well as many other goodies.
“It’s a lot of food, but that’s what it takes,” Acosta said as Zychowski handed a credit card to the cashier.
Zychowski visits Costa Rica every two months to make the trip to PriceSmart with Acosta and Arguedas. His association, Feed My Sheep, helped open a community kitchen in the church of San Miguel de Desamparados in November 2009.
The kitchen, run by Acosta and Arguedas while Zychowski is out of the country, provides lunch to 100 children five days a week in this small, dusty town. Some of the women in this shantytown are single mothers who don’t always have the time or the resources to meet all of their families’ needs.
They appreciate the new kitchen.
“It’s a big help,” said 24-year-old María Gómez, a mother of two. “I always cook in the house when I’m there, but having this for the kids helps me save a lot of time and a little bit of money.”
Some of Zychowski’s money is also used to purchase basic school and uniform supplies for the families who are on the kitchen’s recipient list. On a recent Friday afternoon, each of the children present received a notebook, pens, pencils and a pair of new Crocs to wear around town.
Gomez’ neighbor, Yessis Vivas, 28, has one nine-year-old son. She called the kitchen “a blessing from God,” because she rarely has the cash to buy all the supplies that her son needs for each school semester.
Local families exalt the new comedor, or dining room, but the project hasn’t grown without some issues.
While Zychowski’s assistance can cover the costs for the food and some other basic items, the monies are not enough to pay the expenses that Acosta and Arguedas have faced since opening the dinning hall’s doors late last year.
Electricity bills have soared because of all the cooking appliances the couple plugs in daily. Acosta’s gasoline payments have make to and from Zapote. The church is using more water than ever before.
The pair does not have the resources to foot the bill on their own. Therefore, they are looking for aid outside of the community to keep the kitchen up and running.
Zychowski said he hopes to grow the new lunchroom so that it eventually can serve 150 children per day. At present, volunteers who help operate the kitchen have to turn children away at the entrance of the church because there is insufficient space and not enough food.
Francis Guillén, 23, volunteers at the church. She writes down and keeps track of the names of all the children who arrive everyday.
“It’s disheartening. There is nothing worse than telling a child that there is no space for him or her,” she said. “At the same time, everything has to be organized and in order so that everyone can get what they need.”
To take advantage of the meals, families must sign up through Acosta and Arguedas and attend daily. After a three-day absence, children lose their spot on the list.
During a recent visit, 94 children arrived. Guillén breathed a sigh of relief.
But for Arguedas, providing lunch to 150 children is still a long way off. In her office, sifting through bills and fighting back tears, she looked at her husband and asked him what to do.
“I don’t know if we can make it,” she said. “We need help. These families really need this comedor.”
For more information on Zychowski’s efforts, e-mail him at [email protected]. To help Acosta and Arguedas with the community kitchen, call the church’s office at 2510-2920.