Hispanic Heritage Month Stories: From Elementary through High School, We Relied on Free Lunch

As part of our celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re sharing stories of Hispanic staff members highlighting their diverse experiences and what connects them to end childhood hunger. Andy Villabona, senior manager of culinary partnerships and events at No Kid Hungry, shares his experience as an immigrant from Colombia.

Andy and brother in plane

Andy (right) and his 3-year-old brother on the plane.

The first time I missed a flight was three weeks before my seventh birthday.

It was like the scene from home alone where the entire family rushes through the airport to make the gate. The difference here was only three of us were boarding the flight — my then 29-year-old mom, my 3-year-old brother and me — everyone else was there to say goodbye. The flight was supposed to reunite us with my dad, who nine months prior had fled Colombia for the United States with the hope of a better and safer life for us. 

Upon missing the flight, I recall my uncles doing everything they could at the airport to get us on another. What would have been a three-hour flight turned into a three layover, nine-hour flight. 

For the next three months, the four of us lived in a motel room on Miami Beach.

I vividly remember so much of those early years in this new country: the different schools, the multitude of cars (most of which were probably way past their lifespan), the different homes (by the time I finished elementary school, we were on our fourth move), Friday nights at the laundromat, all the frozen cheese ravioli you can imagine – but what I most vividly remember is how happy we were. 

Through all the struggles, two things were always constant: family and food.

The thing about being Colombian is we’re all about family. Family is everything, so the happiness of us being together helped my parents shield my brother and me from feeling the struggle that they, as parents, were going through to make ends meet. 

Andy's family

My dad left an established career as a civil engineer in Colombia for a tomato farm in Florida. He enlisted himself in night school at Miami-Dade Community College to learn enough English to get his career as an engineer back up running. He’s run his own contracting firm for the past 25+ years now. My mom left her hospitality career and dedicated her life to raising us and helping my dad with the business, which she still does to this day.

When we arrived, the only way to communicate with our family back in Colombia was through letters. The days we received letters would be when my parents had the biggest smiles. Later on, it was the “phone stores,” where we’d cram into a phone booth to talk with family back home for 5-10 minutes, and a few years later phone cards became a weekly purchase for us. This was our constant connection to family and kept us grounded in our roots.

When it came to food, we were blessed with always having a hot meal. My mom is an amazing cook, and even the most basic of pantry staples were always transformed into comforting meals. There were plenty of nights when a fried egg and rice was all we’d have for dinner. Looking back on those times, I now know why that’s what we ate, but in those moments my parents made sure we weren’t feeling their struggles.

The work we do here at No Kid Hungry has reinforced how much of a blessing it was that we had free lunch at school. It was one less worry for my parents and ensured that my brother and I would always have a nutritious meal during the school day. From elementary through high school, we relied on free lunch.

A few years after we arrived, my youngest brother was born, followed by my sister a couple years later. They too benefited from free lunch throughout their education. Our parents knew they needed the help, and luckily the government programs like free lunch and food stamps (now SNAP) were there for our family.

Today, three weeks shy of my 36th birthday, I still don’t know how my parents pulled it off; however, their sacrifices haven’t gone unnoticed. My siblings and I talk about them constantly, and we’ll forever be grateful for everything they did and continue to do for us.

My brother Hugo is the director of operations for one of the fastest growing publishers in the country. Juan is a third-year medical school from Johns Hopkins, and Alejandra is an associate producer at a marketing firm in NYC. All four of us are college graduates, and our parents’ commitment to us is what’s always driven us to break barriers.

Gracias, Mami. Gracias, Papi.