CARACAS, Venezuela – Fermina Nuñez said she lost about 60 pounds and she has gained some weight now. She had felt ashamed to go out when her clothes didn't fit her, but she is now going to work every day. The mother of two lives in an impoverished area of Venezuela's capital city of Caracas.
The mother said that when she was able to afford chicken -- she couldn't afford to buy rice or flour. She is not the only one who knows what is like to be hungry in the crumbling hill of the La Vega neighborhood's La Tumbita area, where her two children are growing up.
"We don't eat like we used to," Nuñez said, adding that before former President Hugo Chávez died in 2013, she used to be able to eat ham.
Nuñez said she is getting some help at a local soup kitchen. In 2016, Caracas Mi Convive, a nongovernmental organization, launched the Alimenta La Solidaridad soup kitchens to help reduce malnutrition in Venezuelan children. They now feed Nuñez's children and close to 10,000 children in more than 120 communities once a day, from Monday to Friday.
When the Comedor Resurrección, a soup kitchen in La Vega, opened its doors, Nuñez was in desperate need. She said the hunger didn't let her fall asleep. Now, with one daily meal secured, Nuñez said her children have been able to gain some weight.
Inside the hut Nuñez shares with her children and husband -- which is made out of mud, wood, straw and metal roof panels -- there is a small refrigerator. She said the daily meals at the Comedor Resurrección have allowed her to store more food in it and helped her and her husband to also put on some weight.
Marvis Guerra, who cooks at the Comedor Resurrección, said she wished they could do more.
"There are many more people in need," Guerra said. "I would say out of the 59 children who eat here, the same amount are waiting to get a spot."
Nuñez said she fled from poverty in Colombia and moved to Venezuela in 2004, when Venezuela was experiencing record economic growth due to increased investment, according to the Venezuelan Central Bank. She found opportunity as a domestic worker in Caracas, which was then a modern capital that was the envy of Latin America.
Nuñez, who worked as a domestic worker, fell in love with Wolfang Villegas, a Venezuelan who worked as a security guard for the government. There was hope for the poor, as Chávez expropriated and redistributed wealth, but the short-run payoffs didn't last. Chavez's successor, Nicolás Maduro, couldn't continue to deliver.
The couple had two children. In 2015, their 6-month-old baby boy was being treated for a kidney condition. The decline of the medical system hurt Nuñez. She said a medical mistake nearly cost her son his life and he was hospitalized for about seven months. The shortages at the hospital forced the family to buy medicines and medical supplies.
Nuñez, who is back to work, never imagined that she would be tempted to go back to Colombia, where there are an estimated 1.4 million Venezuelan refugees. On Tuesday, Colombia granted citizenship to 24,000 children born to Venezuelan mothers on its territory.
Nuñez said there are many children in need, so she is glad her kids are getting help from the soup kitchen. Chronic malnutrition is widespread in Venezuela. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, has warned about famine in Venezuela and reported a desperate need for external food assistance.
More than half of children under 5 suffer from malnutrition, according to Caritas Venezuela, the local arm of the Catholic Church’s humanitarian agency. About 40 percent of Venezuelan children are spending all day without eating, the agency reported in February
Alimenta La Solidaridad, which runs on donations and volunteers, has kept Nuñez, Villegas and their children from starving. Roberto Patiño, a Harvard-educated Venezuelan political activist living in Caracas, has been expanding the program for three years.
"Everyday we read tragic information about the increase in cases of child malnutrition in the country and even deaths of children from this cause," Patiño, a Juan Guaidó supporter, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. "We cannot stand idly by and we must continue to fight to end this emergency."
HOW TO HELP