San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Central America is prime target for massive Florida-based Christian charity

COCONUT CREEK, Florida – From sewing machines for Guatemalan housewives to free lunches for 70,000 schoolchildren in Nicaragua, Florida-based Food For The Poor Inc. is helping improve the lives of some of the poorest people in Central America.

Ranked by the Chronicle of Philanthropy newspaper as the largest international charity in the United States, FFP has an annual budget exceeding $900 million. It boasts 1,200 employees throughout the hemisphere, including more than 300 at its sprawling 160,000-square-foot headquarters in Coconut Creek, Florida.

“We’re feeding over two million people a day, six days a week,” said Robin G. Mahfood, the organization’s CEO. “These are not poor people, they are destitute people. What we’re seeing today are naked children with no clothes, no shoes and no food. We work in garbage dumps, we work with the homeless.”

FFP also works with the physically and mentally disabled – people “who are forgotten,” he added.

Since its establishment in 1982, FFP has provided more than $10 billion in aid to poor people in 17 countries throughout Central America and the Caribbean – with half that just in the last five years. It says it has maintained operating expenses under 5 percent to ensure that more than 95 percent of donations go directly toward programs that help the poor.

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A family receiving a new home in Jamaica. Courtesy Food for the Poor Inc.

In 2012, the Christian charity built 6,805 housing units, bringing the total to more than 84,000 since 1982. In Haiti alone, it has built 3,668 permanent two-room homes with sanitation units.

Also in 2012, FFP shipped 609 trailer loads of medicines and medical supplies, including 122 trailers to Jamaica, 113 to Haiti, 90 to Guatemala, 75 to El Salvador, 61 to Nicaragua, 41 to Honduras, 40 to Guyana and 28 to the Dominican Republic.

Mahfood keeps on the wall of his office a framed portrait of a homeless Jamaican man who receives food from the NGO every day. Mahood’s desk is cluttered with bronze sculptures, plastic panic buttons, chocolate kisses and other tchotchkes.

“We’re not social workers,” he said. “We live by the gospel, we adhere to the gospel, and it’s because of the gospel we do what we do. And we work only through churches.”

Born in Detroit and raised in Jamaica, Mahfood attended a Jesuit school and was a soft drink and food executive for years. In 2000, he took the helm as president of FFP, which had been started by his brother Ferdinand 18 years earlier.

“We could go into 10 more countries tomorrow but we don’t have the wherewithal. We can’t even cope with what we have. We work with one family to get out of poverty.”

FFP depends entirely on donations, and its Christmas 2013 catalog lets people “give a gift that will change a life.” For example, $24 provides 100 pounds of rice and beans for a poor family; $114 provides a sewing machine, fabric and thread; $125 buys a solar-powered light kit; $3,200 builds a house with sanitation; $5,750 buys a fisherman a fiberglass boat; and $10,560 ships a tractor-trailer full of food.

Mahfood said FFP has spent $8 million on energy programs for the Caribbean and Central America over the past five years. In 2013, the organization installed 200 outdoor lighting systems. It specifically works with 45 fishing villages in Haiti and 17 in Jamaica.

In Guatemala, FFP partners with Cáritas Arquidiocesana, the Order of Malta and the Lutheran Church. Earlier this year, 19 members of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, presented nine sewing machines to women in Vista Bella, Guatemala, while on a mission trip for FFP.

“I was so excited to bring the sewing machines to the ladies as a way to offer hope for their future,” said Karen Kuehnert, the mission leader at St. Michael’s. “My heart went out to these women after seeing that they only had three sewing machines. They have no lights to sew by, just two windows and a half-roof over the dirt floor. The beauty of their fabric creations is only what can give them pride, but the conditions under which they work limits how much they can produce.”

FFP development projects for women in Guatemala include vocational training courses in baking and sewing, group aquaculture and animal husbandry projects, access to clean water, permanent housing and shelter, and food for expecting mothers.

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A worker installs solar panels on the roof of a community center in the Amerindian village of Georgeville in Essequibo, Guyana. The solar panels will charge a battery storage unit, which will become the power source for the desktop computers distributed by Food For The Poor for students and their families living in the remote village. Courtesy Food for the Poor Inc.

In 2010, FFP received more than 195 containers of food through U.S. Department of Agriculture grants for Guatemala. And recently, the USDA awarded FFP more than 4,960 tons of aid, which will be used to improve the nutrition and health conditions of some 70,000 Nicaraguan children by giving them a meal at school each day.

In Haiti, the rapid spread of cholera has complicated post-earthquake recovery efforts, so FFP financed the installation of 70 water chlorination systems, each of which provide 10,000 gallons a day of filtered, chlorinated water.

“I personally feel that if it weren’t for all these units, the cholera disaster would have been really tremendous,” Mahfood said. Since it began in October 2010, the cholera epidemic has killed 8,300 Haitians and sickened another 650,000, sparking riots against United Nations peacekeeping troops and a class-action lawsuit against the U.N. Scientists say the source of the outbreak was a base housing Nepalese peacekeepers that was perched above a tributary stream leading into Haiti’s Artibonite River.

In Haiti and throughout the rest of the Caribbean, the high cost of electricity has also been a major contributing factor to poverty, Mahfood said.

“Here in America, residential customers pay about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. In Jamaica, it’s 46 cents. Families cannot afford to pay their electric bills, much less a school or a hospital. It’s just ridiculous, so everybody’s trying to find alternatives.”

For this reason, FFP has purchased more than 6,000 solar-powered light kits for impoverished people in Nicaragua, Honduras, Jamaica, Haiti and Guyana. Each unit, imported from China, costs $125 and includes a solar panel, a battery, three light bulbs and cables for charging mobile phones.

“Many of these people live in the middle of nowhere, and half their problems come from bad sanitation and lack of light,” Mahfood said. “They’ve never had light in their life. They’ve never seen ice before. This is totally changing their lives.”

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Food For The Poor donated a solar-powered water purification machine that now processes thousands of gallons of water a day at the International Red Cross compound in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Courtesy Food for the Poor Inc.

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