Food for Thought

One of our travelers gets a taste of life in the Peruvian Andes, and a renewed outlook on how vitamins are making an impact in areas depleted of nutrient-rich foods.

By Elysia Cook

“My favorite question was, ‘What do you like to cook?’ Because I’m a food guy; I love hearing about the different types of cuisines and what they’d make for their children,” Mike Barchefski shared.

As a self-described foodie, you might say that ‘chef’ is Mike’s middle name, or more accurately, the middle of his last name. So when the opportunity arose for Mike to represent The Vitamin Shoppe on a weeklong trip to Peru with Vitamin Angels, he signed up, curious to find out more about the local fare and its relationship to our work.

Among the many things Mike learned was that what ends up on the dinner table depends on a variety of factors, including the weather. During his visit, a late-season snowstorm descended and put food supplies and livelihoods in jeopardy. Mike said, "They brought up the potatoes, and how hard it is to grow [them]." Unexpected storms, he continued, "make it hard for them to make a living, and for the livestock to have something to eat.”

Unfortunately, even when the skies are clear, many families in the Peruvian Andes lack access to nutrient-rich foods. The threat of malnutrition looms large, especially for pregnant women and young children. During the team's visit to an elementary school, Mike realized that instead of learning about traditional dishes in Peru, he was learning about the fundamental food groups children are missing.

“It was lunchtime, and I went behind the counter area and saw what was being served; it was milk, with some rice,” he recalled. “That’s what hit me the hardest—that they were excited for a meal like this. That’s when it all came together, and I thought, ‘How are they getting nutrients?’”

“It was really one of those things where you’re running around, playing with kids...then you see what they’re eating two seconds later.”

"They brought up the potatoes, and how hard it is to grow [them]."

Mike realized that instead of learning about traditional dishes in Peru, he was learning about the fundamental food groups children are missing.

He continued, “I’m not typically an emotional guy, but there were a couple of situations where I’d have to take a deep breath and step outside really quick, just to gather myself,” he recalled. “It was really one of those things where you’re running around, playing with kids...then you see what they’re eating two seconds later.”

That moment opened his eyes to how “I take so many things for granted,” he shared. “I think about me sending back a meal in a restaurant and think, ‘What a waste.’ And the vitamins and prenatals, how important they are to these kids because they’re not getting the same things.” Understanding the reality of the need through the people he met in Peru gave new meaning to Mike’s perception of the trip, and of the Vitamin Angels/Vitamin Shoppe partnership that has provided vitamins for children and mothers for over a decade.

“I know that vitamins help, and taking multivitamins are replenishing nutrients in your diet,” he said. “But to hear that every mother was saying their child was born at a healthy weight, a healthy height—and some were even saying that their child was smarter—it’s amazing to hear that something like prenatal multivitamins has such a big impact on so many mothers and children. I was blown away.”

Returning from his journey, Mike was hungry to share what he learned with his co-workers and to work even harder to raise funds during promotional periods.

“You have that feeling like you’re gonna go back and explain things to other people that don’t see the effect that all these things have, and you’re really gonna make an impact," he said.

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