“I Can’t Walk Away and Leave Malnourished Children Standing There”

Chef David Wasson feeds 250 children every Saturday in Mindanao. Photo: Courtesy Chef David Wasson

What did you have for dinner today? Chances are you had plenty to eat, and your stomach felt satisfyingly full afterward. Maybe you also ate breakfast and lunch. Even if it was only fast food, you most likely ate something.

Not everyone is so lucky. According to Clint Borgen, writing for Huffington Post last month, 24,000 children are “dying each day from poverty.” That’s a staggering number. Yet, we could eradicate hunger, Borgen says, if we’d spend just $30 billion a year to feed the poor. Perhaps someday our governments will wake up and allocate more to nutrition and health care than guns and bombs. But malnourished children can’t wait for “someday.”

My cousin, David Wasson, knows this better than most. David is an award-winning chef who spent his career preparing meals for wealthy people and teaching their children to cook. He also taught cooking at a community college in the United States. As he approached retirement, David embarked on a completely new venture that would profoundly change his life. Today, as the Chef and Child Foundation Ambassador to the Philippines, David cooks for children who are as familiar with hunger as most people reading this post are familiar with a full belly.

His work is urgent. With every meal he cooks, he fights to save children’s lives and the health of their brains and bodies. I’ve been following David’s work on Facebook in recent months, and I asked him if I could share some of his story with Blue Planet Green Living readers. Following are excerpts from David’s two Facebook pages and some email exchanges we have had.

Please read about David’s work, and if you are so moved, send a contribution of any size to:

The Tagum City Food Bank
c/o David Wasson
8345 NW 66th St.#2816
Miami, Florida 33166

Tagum City Food Bank is a 501(c)3 organization, and all contributions are tax-deductible to the full extent of U.S. law. David says, “Thank you in advance for any help you can give these kids. 100% of donations are spent on rice and other foods.”

Here is David’s story. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

I retired and moved here from Seattle in 2008, looking for a quiet and peaceful end to my life. After moving to Mindanao (which is considered dangerous even by Filipino standards), I was invited to a “Thanksgiving” celebration at Purok Garciaville.

Though the children Chef Wasson feeds have clean clothes and appear to be doing well, they are malnourished. Photo: Courtesy Chef David Wasson

I was struck by the weight of the children, and in asking the Barangay Health Worker, I began to see some serious problems that are not always so obvious. Yes, the children are happy, clean, mostly well dressed and not usually “looking” distressed.

In some cases you will see children wearing really old or torn and dirty clothes — but almost never, and only in cases of extreme poverty or when there is no mother around. They get some clothes donated by the church, and there are secondhand shops (called “okay-okay” and mostly from Japan or Korea) where you can buy used clothes really cheap, like less than a dollar. They make a lot of the clothes we wear in America here in Southeast Asia, remember.

Also, there is a cultural thing about this. They may not have food. They may live in a dirt floored nipa hut, but they sweep it three times a day and, by God, they are not going to look dirty to the world. If they go out, even to the food bank, they will shower and wear the best clothes they can. It is called “face.”

These children are some of the most malnourished among all the children Chef Wasson serves. Photo: Courtesy Chef David Wasson

It is when you realize their age that you see how bad their condition is: Children 2 years old who can’t make 5 kilos (11 pounds). Their hair is falling out. And they are already developing heart conditions.

As I started feeding the kids in Mindanao every other week, and then once a week, I began to see that they needed to eat every day to really gain their weight. I also did some research on malnutrition and its long-term effects on children, as well as gathering statistical information on malnutrition in the Philippines. I learned that two-thirds of all malnourished children are in Southeast Asia. One percent are in America. Twenty-five percent are in Africa.

Official data from the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) (2006) shows that 56.9% of households did not meet the recommended nutrient energy intake/requirement. Out of 100 Filipino children 0–5 years old, about 25 are underweight (suffering from current malnutrition), 26 are stunted (chronic malnutrition), and 5 are wasted (acute malnutrition).

That word, wasted… I just can’t concede that any child is a wasted effort. Statistically, those children are very close to death and heart problems… wasted… wasted lives… No! It gives me a physical reaction and I want to say, “No! Those 5 ‘wasted’ lives will not be wasted. No!”

When I first came to Mindanao, I saw a society that is struggling. Schools here, including the public schools, cost the parents money. It is not uncommon for a family to have as many as 9 children, so school, any medical care, and food are often “divided” among the children.

This little girl is almost two years old and weighs less than 2 kilos (11 pounds). Her thinning hair is also a sign of severe malnutrition. Photo: Courtesy Chef David Wasson

The main deficiency is their weight, because these children don’t get to eat every day. I use the BMI index to classify the children as officially malnourished, which just means they are so skinny and underweight that their brains and bodies won’t develop normally. It’s really very dangerous for their (our) future.

As an educator and retired chef, I see a desperate need to provide food for these children. Mass feedings (250 kids at a time) are the simplest way to do something. I started with two feedings a month, which I paid for out of my $350 USD/month teacher’s pension.

As I feed the children, the Purok health care workers record their weight, which is thoroughly documented for their records and mine. It was, and still is, immediately apparent that while these children have homes and family, they are woefully malnourished and dangerously underweight. For example, one 10-year-old girl barely made 16 kilos weight (35.2 pounds).

I realized that to help them gain and maintain a healthy weight, they would have to eat every day.

So, I went to the Purok leaders and presented the idea of a food bank to them, which they readily embraced. They donated a building for the purpose of installing a food bank there. I spent about $300 USD to remodel the building, got all city licenses, satisfied all international banking laws, and opened the Tagum City Food Bank on July 23, 2010, with the help of Rotary Club of Tagum City and the Chef and Child Foundation.

The Purok leaders have records of every child who lives there, and they know who needs the food. The 24 most severely malnourished children of Mankilam are down 40% of their body weight! They now have food bank cards that allow them to receive 3 kilos of rice and other canned goods every Saturday. We need at least 200 kilos of rice each week to make that possible.

Chef Wasson, surrounded by some of the children he feeds. Photo: Courtesy Chef David Wasson

In July, I purchased 14,000 grams of powdered milk. We are giving each of the 218 malnourished kids (1 – 5 years old) in Barangay Mankilam powdered milk every day for 120 days in an effort to raise their weight a bit. We take their weight, feed them and their mothers rice and gulay (sautéed vegetables), and give a one-hour class to the mothers.…

By the third weekly feeding at the new food bank, we already have children who have graduated to normal weight: Lloyd Bayate, 72 months old weighed 13 kilos; on August 7, he weighed 14.5 kilos. Nicole Reyes, 32 months old weighed 10 kilos; now she weighs 11.8 kilos. Jenny Dal, 42 months old, weighed 11 kilos; now she weighs 12.5 kilos. Jericho Sabijon, 59 months old, weighed 12 kilos; now he weighs 14 kilos. All are now normal-weight children! But there are so many more to go.…

While there are many needs on this planet, here is one place to start the process of daily feeding that is sustainable and not expensive. I hope to see it grow to every Barangay in Mindanao.

Chef Wasson helps the Rotary Club of Tagum City pass out school bags, supplies, and food to the children. Photo: Courtesy Chef David Wasson

The Rotary Club of Tagum City has a foundation through which donations can be made to the Tagum City Food Bank. Soon, I will open a web page with a donate button so people may donate directly with any credit card.

I get up every single day, and try to do what I can to get these children some food. I see the faces of every child in the world, who isn’t sure if they will really get to eat fresh hot food or not….

I was trying to retire, but I just can’t find it in myself to walk away, comfortable in life, and leave malnourished children standing there. I just can’t do it.

Chef David Wasson, CCC, CCE

Contributing Writer

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Chef David Wasson, Contributing Writer

Chef David Wasson with some of the 250 children he feeds each week in Mindanao, The Philippines. Photo: Courtesy David Wasson

Chef David Wasson, CCC, CCE was a chef, caterer and teacher in Seattle Washington (35 years), where he won many awards for Innovative Nutrition Education. He also taught AAS degree classes in French Culinary Theory and Nutrition for the Seattle Community College District (20 years).

Chef Wasson wrote That’s Fresh, Kids Cooking Team’s curriculum for the Chef and Child Foundation, and a cookbook for children.

This ongoing process of teaching and feeding children is directly focused on the City of Tagum, where he now lives. Wasson feeds 250 children each week through the Tagum City Food Bank, a charity that he started with the assistance of Tagum City Rotary and Chef & Child Foundation.

David Wasson

Chef and Child Foundation Ambassador to the Philippines

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

David’s Posts

I Can’t Walk Away and Leave Malnourished Children Standing There