Maria was eight years old when she first entered “Huellas de Pan,” a small and humble one-room diner in Cancun where children with severe malnutrition and economic disadvantage backgrounds attend for one healthy meal a day. As like the other children, Maria would undergo blood tests to determine her unique deficiencies, after which a tailored diet would be designed to help reduce the effects of stunting and delayed physical and cognitive development.


Huellas de Pan is not merely a food kitchen for children. It is a means by which children are incentivized to stay in school, graduate, and access greater economic and educational opportunities than were accessible to their parents. Huellas de Pan is not set up as a charity for poor and hungry children. It presents itself as a social club, where children get together on weekends for cultural activities, celebrate birthdays, and go on exciting field trips. Each child, however, must pay to be part of this social club. The cost to join - staying in school and getting good grades.


That first day Maria was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Without hesitation, an eight year old girl responded matter-of-factly, “I am going to clean houses. Like my mom and my grandmother.” That day children each made their own colored drawings depicting what they hoped to be when they grew up. Maria’s picture depicted her holding a broom, as a house maid.


Children who have been part of the Huellas de Pan program steadily nourish their bodies which in turn improves their school performance. In these vulnerable areas, it is estimated that up to 75% of children go to school hungry and cannot afford to bring a lunch. Aside from obvious physical repercussions from not having enough nutrients during formative years, children hailing from backgrounds of malnutrition are unable to develop complete intellectual capacity - meaning their brains can literally be smaller than their counterparts. An insidious outcome that can be prevented and in some cases reversed by a mere one nutritious meal per day.


Maria continued in Huellas de Pan over the years. As has been customary with 100% of child beneficiaries, Maria’s health indicators bettered, her grades improved, and her self-confidence blossomed. By her senior year of high school, Maria was asked again what career she envisioned for herself. “I want to be a chef,” she replied. “I love to cook.” Maria was accepted into a university where she currently studies gastronomy.


Now a graduate of Huellas de Pan, Maria occasionally returns to visit the director and mother figure who made this program possible. “Señora Elena,” she said, “there is an opportunity for me to study in Paris for one year. What do you think I should do?” Elena responded, “You are going to go right back to campus and find out two things. One, what needs to happen for you to go study in Paris — because you are definitely going. And two, what needs to happen for me to come with you!”


Outcomes produced by poverty are many. Perhaps among one of the most tragic, is that conditions of poverty prevent children from dreaming. In eight year old Maria’s mind there was no question about “what can I become.” Rather a simple and honest acknowledgment of “what will I become.” A simple program that provided her with one meal per day and a community of equally determined children helped Maria stay in school, graduate, and begin to build her life on her dreams and her talent at a time and place where she had tremendous odds set against her.


Many like her continue their days working on empty stomachs. Undernourished brains cause them to slowly fall behind in school. Harsh economic realities of their families compel them to drop out, join gangs, or marry prematurely. Maria’s parents did not make it past the third grade. By being offered a mere nutritious meal a day along with guidance to continue her studies, Maria is breaking her family line’s poverty cycle. In just one generation. That is the power of one healthy meal.


Dylan Tucker