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GAINESVILLE ‒ The simple act of buying a pumpkin in Gainesville can feed a child in Guatemala.

Buy a Pumpkin Feed a Child, a nonprofit project organized by the Gainesville Church of God, effects change by feeding over 500 Guatemalan children per week with proceeds from its annual pumpkin patch.

About two-thirds of the Guatemalan population live on no more than $2 per day, according to the World Bank. Guatemala has the fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world and the highest in Latin America.

The pumpkin patch returned for its eighth year at 7003 N.W. 39th Avenue, welcoming guests from Oct. 1 to Oct. 31 with tractor rides, photo opportunities and freshly baked pumpkin bread.

The patch offered free admission but encouraged guests to buy a pumpkin or pumpkin bread to support its cause.

The church partnered with Flames of Fire Ministries, another local religious organization, to build its first feeding center 20 years ago in Chiquimula, Guatemala, said Marla Johnson, a missionary who frequently travels to distribute food at the centers.

“When we first moved there, we found out that 150 children had recently died from malnutrition in that area alone,” she said. “We’ve got to do something about it.”

A majority of children in Chiquimula live off a single tortilla per day; the luxury of eating meat is a rarity. The organizations use proceeds from the pumpkin patch and year-round donations to provide a balanced meal of meat and vegetables for children three times per week, she said.

“These kids are crying themselves to sleep at night — not because they don’t have a new pair of the latest name-brand tennis shoes — but because they literally haven’t eaten all day,” she said.

Guatemalan children suffer from stunted growth, impaired motor function and hair and teeth loss due to an inaccessibility of food, said Joshua Lounsbury, head coordinator of the pumpkin patch.

These children struggle to learn effectively in school and are often too physically weak to take on trade skills like farming, he said.

“We see kids who start in the feeding center at age two, and we watch them grow up to 12 or 13,” he said. “You can actually see the difference in size between a kid who has been in the feeding center and a kid who hasn’t.”

The church opened its ninth feeding center in Guatemala in July. The centers are primarily stationed in places across Chiquimula, but the church has expanded its efforts over past years to feed several hundred children in other countries suffering from malnutrition, including Venezuela, Cuba and Uruguay, he said.

Each year, the pumpkin patch has doubled in attendance, garnering far more revenue than expected. Because of the patch’s success, the church has looked for ways to give back to its own community, he said.

The church partnered with the Food4Kids Backpack Program of North Florida, a nonprofit organization that works with local schools to provide meals for students in need. Additionally, the church donates to the Heart of Florida Youth Ranch, an organization in Citra that feeds hundreds of abandoned or neglected children per week, he said.

The organizations also support communities across the U.S. by purchasing the patch’s pumpkins from a Native American reservation in the Navajo Nation and giving leftover pumpkins to local farmers to feed their livestock, Johnson said.

“People come here and pay a little bit more for a pumpkin than you would at Publix, but a lot of them actually thank me for using the money to help kids,” Lounsbury said. “It really does impact our guests.”

Raluca Velcu, first-time visitor at the patch and third-year political science major at the University of Florida, said she was moved by how the project gives back to children not only locally, but globally.

“I came in just wanting to explore the patch but left with a pumpkin, pumpkin bread and a feeling of gratitude for how my purchases can help a child in need,” she said.

Despite COVID-19, the church welcomed over 30,000 attendees throughout October 2020. Although it is too early to tell the number of this year’s attendees, Lounsbury said he predicts an even larger turnout.

Johnson said the Gainesville Church of God and Flames of Fire Ministries look forward to continuing the tradition to help as many children as possible.

“What we’re doing is a life-altering endeavor,” she said. “It’s something that literally gives life to the kids.”

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