Sofia Sarasti

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2002
Banco de Alimentos
This description of Sofia Sarasti's work was prepared when Sofia Sarasti was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002 .


Sofia Sarasti responds to the need for more effective and widespread hunger relief in Colombia by working with food banks to improve the way they organize themselves and collect and distribute food.

L'idée nouvelle

Sofia has a new model for hunger relief: updating the previously ineffective and poorly operated food banks that have traditionally handed out food to the needy. Recognizing that food banks were not getting food to all those who were hungry, Sofia launched a pilot food bank to test new methods in food delivery and develop best practices to share with other organizations throughout the country. She has developed systems that evaluate local demand for food and institutions' capacity to meet demand, in order to determine how a food bank might deliver the right amount of food to the greatest number of distribution centers. Sofia also helps centers and soup kitchens quantify and track their inventories, measure effectiveness, formalize accounting, and build capacity. By working with both the food assistance organizations and their providers, Sofia is creating replicable systems to offer more effective hunger relief and avoid resource misuse and inefficiency.

Le problème

Colombia's armed conflict has caused widespread human displacement, withdrawal of business investment, and growing unemployment–all factors that have contributed to rising poverty and hunger. In the city of Cali alone, 400,000 of its 1.5 million citizens need food aid. The economic crisis and diversion of resources toward the war have significantly cut social spending, making it difficult for the government to deal with hunger. The Colombian Institute of Family Welfare, the government entity responsible for funding antihunger programs, has already been forced to cut all funds to homes for the elderly and has reduced funding to children's programs by half.
Despite tremendous demand for relief, food still goes to waste. Various citizen organizations have emerged and responded to the needs created by federal program cuts in food provision. However, most are poorly run, wasteful, compartmentalized, and managed ineffectively. Most food banks tend to supply the same distribution centers and soup kitchens, leaving some with an unusable surplus and others without enough to feed their clients. There was only one major food bank in Colombia prior to the launch of Sofia's initiative, and while it supplied all distribution centers, it did not provide technical assistance, infrastructure, or business guidance.

La stratégie

Sofia developed her new food bank model in 1999, responding to the pervasive issues of poverty and hunger in Colombia and the inefficiency of existing hunger relief agencies. She launched the Cali Food Bank to improve the operations of both food collection and distribution organizations, focusing equally on efficient use of resources and development of new infrastructure and governance. Moreover, she ensures that food resources reach the intended beneficiaries, identifies new and unmet demands, and advocates for higher quantity and quality food donations.
In order to ensure that all Cali Food Bank food donations reach the intended recipients, Sofia designed a screening process for all the distribution centers it supplies. Cali Food Bank requires that the centers employ fully transparent management practices and evaluate the impact of donations on their target population. Piracy and resale were common hindrances in Colombia's hunger relief sector before Sofia created guidelines for checking the veracity of food center clientele. Her staff visit all new organizations that apply for food supplies, and they perform up to four surprise follow-up visits each year, during which Sofia's team also assesses the organizations' management needs and local demand. Once affiliated, the organizations pay a service fee equal to 10 percent of the donated food's market value. This fee contributes to Cali Food Bank's longevity, growth, and financial sustainability; it also motivates the organization to look toward their constituents to help cost-recovery and thus promotes a sustainable model over one that is charity-based.
Sofia identifies each affiliated agency's operational and managerial weaknesses and offers workshops to guarantee that each organization can meet its individual objectives and contribute to the common goal of fighting hunger efficiently and effectively. Programs include sustainability practices, transparency, customer service, and organizational structure. Some of Cali Food Bank's most innovative workshops relate to the proper use and expansion of computer systems and software. Sofia trains food distribution and soup kitchen staff in database design and management so that they can track and link with other citizen sector projects and volunteers in the area, addressing additional client needs like childcare and marketable job skills.
Cali Food Bank also holds trainings on practical health and home-related topics for its affiliates and their beneficiaries, exponentially increasing public awareness of best practices through word-of-mouth and the sharing of household tips from client to client. Popular seminars include food preparation, general nutrition, and cooking tips featuring new products. Some of the workshops are directed at a particular audience to increase impact, like introductions of lesser known but highly beneficial fruits and vegetables to school children, who tend to become excited about such prospects and request these foods at home. Another popular workshop trains female heads of household in using overripe foods in cooking rather than simply throwing them away. Engagement of the food bank and distribution centers' client base aids in evaluating need and assessing effectiveness.
Attentive to the growing demand for hunger relief as a result of Colombia's growing population of internally displaced people, Sofia has developed an alternative strategy to address the food needs of those previously not served by the food distribution centers or soup kitchens with which she works. She advises organizations that serve displaced people on the acquisition of equipment and physical space to prepare food. Once these agencies reach a capacity level that enables them to fulfill their beneficiaries' food needs, they enter into Cali Food Bank's network of distribution centers, pay the 10 percent service fee, and qualify for additional infrastructure and management support. In addition to feeding more, previously underserved people and diversifying her client base, Sofia's method helps displaced populations organize locally and mobilize to solve their own problems. They have received training through Cali Food Bank and, in some cases, have started their own revenue-generating microenterprises.
Currently, the Cali Food Bank provides more than 100 metric tons of food per month to 153 different institutions, directly benefiting 23,000 individuals. At the moment, there are more than 100 additional institutions that want to join Sofia's network. As the demand for her services grows, Sofia recognizes the need to increase both the quantity and the quality of food donations. Sofia has a team dedicated to identifying and recruiting food donors among supermarkets, fresh fruit and vegetable markets, and manufacturers. Cali Food Bank receives daily donations from more than 20 stores and companies of foods that are completely fit for consumption but no longer salable. In an effort to increase the amount of nonperishables collected and diversify her donor network to include the citizen base, Sofia launched a new collection campaign last year in collaboration with various high schools around the areas served by food distribution centers and soup kitchens. A new media campaign in cooperation with the Foundation of the Autonomous University of Cali will also significantly increase public awareness for greater citizen participation.
Sofia is currently consolidating her model in Cali but soon plans to begin spreading to other areas, including Palmira and Cauca Valley. The Cali paradigm has already begun to spread informally, as new food banks in Bogotá, Buga, and Ibagué have requested and received training in Sofia's values and methods.

La personne

In her youth, Sofia performed social work with her family and through the Girl Scouts, primarily teaching illiterate people how to read. She studied psychology in college but was ultimately disappointed by the overly scientific and less personal nature of that discipline.
In the early 1980s, with no prior experience, Sofia took a management position in a bank that became the top branch in Cali. After finding a series of other creative ways to sustain her family, in 1989, Sofia decided to start a small business producing and selling jellies. The company, Profrutales, eventually grew to have 10 employees, and its products were sold in major supermarkets in several Colombian cities. In 1994 she sold the company and subsequently watched it fail, thereby learning that no enterprise could succeed without a capable and committed management and a secure organizational structure.
Once Sofia's three children had grown, she began to focus her skills on social change. In 1999 Sofia read a newspaper article about problems experienced by Colombia's only food bank in Medellín and came up with her new idea for a more comprehensive hunger relief and food resources model to launch in her home city of Cali.