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El Salvador children, priest launch initiatives to stave off hunger

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Santa Ana (El Salvador) (AFP)

Priest Moises Rutilio Moran didn't sit twiddling his thumbs when the coronavirus pandemic struck and his church emptied -- like many Salvadorans, he got creative helping combat the country's COVID-induced lack of food.

Determined that his church in the city of Santa Ana "shouldn't be a burden on the community," Moran and his staff dug a pond and started selling affordable fish to the local community.

Some 50 kilometers (30 miles) east in El Chaparral, a village of 107 families, children began rolling up their sleeves, cultivating a vegetable garden that is providing food for the community.

The pandemic and its economic woes have sent the price of fruit and vegetables soaring, and left Salvadorans scheming plans to feed themselves.

"I know how to preach, teach the catechism, manage groups, but launching a tilapias project, never," the 41-year-old priest told AFP.

After churches were closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Moran started collecting groceries to help 1,700 families, "not just poor people with houses made of (metal) sheets" but also lawyers and engineers who lost their jobs.

However, he soon realized he no longer had the means to pay for the electricity, water, telephone and internet at his church, Our Lady of Rosario.

Thus his project was born: provide cheap fish to the community whose payments would keep the church running "in a reciprocal manner."

On a makeshift table next to the pond, 65-year-old church caretaker Roberto Rivas is in charge of gutting the fish.

While the work is rewarding, Rivas told AFP he hopes the church "opens soon because in these worrying times the faithful need us to accompany them."

After five months of closure, churches are tentatively hoping to reopen their doors on August 30.

While many parish priests laid off their employees due to a lack of resources, Moran's new enterprise means he's actually hired new staff.

William Hernandez, 42, was left unemployed after the pharmacy he worked in for 16 years closed due to the crisis.

Now he wields a net and catches fish "chosen by the customer" while Omar Blanco, 29, serves as one of two workers making deliveries by motorcycle.

"It's an excellent initiative discovering sources of work in the midst of a difficult situation in which we have to reinvent methods (of generating income) for the church," priest Oscar Lagos told AFP as he arrived with a cooler to buy some fish.

- 'Getting children involved' -

In the village of El Chaparral radishes, peppers, cabbages, tomatoes, spinach, blackberries and watermelons grown by the children are a welcome boost.

"It's an initiative in our El Chaparral community aimed at getting children and young people involved," said Victorina Alvarenga, a 32-year-old mother who joins her nine-year-old daughter Sheyla in the garden.

The vegetable patch is divided into plots named after the child in charge. One part of the garden is dedicated to providing food for the elderly.

"We're teaching children the value of solidarity so that when they're adults, they'll be good people," said Alvarenga.

A month after planting seeds, the first harvest produced huge radishes that were enthusiastically "ripped up" by the children.

"I'm delighted because I'm bringing fresh food to my family," said Sheyla proudly.

"I don't have any money but I bring healthy food."

The idea has caught on and in the neighboring village of Dimas Rodrigues a score of children have started another community garden.

"We want to produce our own food so we're not dependent on the market," said the group's leader, Pedro Diaz, 22.

Felicia Mijango, in charge of a union of rural communes, says the idea has its roots in the confinement of 10,000 Salvadoran refugees who fled to Ocotepeque in Honduras as civil war raged a decade ago.

The refugees couldn't leave their UN camp that was surrounded by barbed wire so they started growing their own fruit and vegetables.

Mijango says her union actively supports around 100 family and community allotments with help from American and Canadian NGOs.

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