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ARGENTINA | 15-02-2024 00:33

More hunger, less money: Argentina's soup kitchens count rations

At community meal centres across Argentina, a dual crisis is biting: the influx of ever more hungry mouths to feed during an economic crisis, and a decision by President Javier Milei's new government to freeze their aid.

In an Argentine soup kitchen, empty plastic containers are piling up from hungry visitors, and the cooks are worried their limited supply of pasta will not be enough to fill them.

"I don't know if we will make it today," frets 50-year-old Carina López, who manages the ‘Las hormiguitas viajeras’ community dining hall in Loma Hermosa, a poor neighbourhood in San Martín, north of Buenos Aires.

She points to empty crates normally filled with fruit and vegetables.

Today, those coming for a hot meal will only get plain pasta and a small piece of pork.

Meal centres like this one are facing a dual crisis: the influx of ever more hungry mouths to feed during an economic crisis, and a decision by President Javier Milei's new government to freeze their aid.

Tens of thousands of such community organisations in Argentina received their last batch of food from the government in November, before Milei – a far-right libertarian, self-described "anarcho-capitalist" – was inaugurated.

Milei's government says it plans to audit the needs of each individual soup kitchen to put in place a system of direct aid, and excluding intermediaries such as social movements he describes as "poverty managers."

"There will be an innovative method so that help arrives where it is supposed to," Milei's Presidential Spokesperson Manuel Adorni said.

The soup kitchens, which typically provide more than 100 portions a day, have waited months on that innovation while battling to survive off some municipal aid and donations.

López said she had been told by authorities to either "cut the soup kitchen's days, or kick people out."

"But I can't kick anyone out. There are new people. New elderly people." 


'The situation is beyond me'

Argentina faces annual inflation of over 250 percent with almost half the country now living in poverty after decades of economic mismanagement.

Milei, elected on a wave of fury last November, has vowed a painful turnaround and embarked on massive spending cuts. He also started his term by devaluing the long-overvalued peso by more than 50 percent and cutting state subsidies on fuel and transport – further hitting the poor.

One of the new visitors to the soup kitchen in San Martín is Daniel Barreto, 33, a bricklayer who like others is struggling to find contract jobs with many construction sites at a standstill after the government froze all new public works.

Meanwhile, private companies are hiring less because of the economic crisis.

The wages Barreto does manage to scrape together are nonetheless eaten away by inflation.

"However much I do or don't work, the money is not enough. I have a wife and four kids," he said. "The situation is beyond me."

The social movements who run the soup kitchens – born of a strong sense of community – say the number of people resorting to them has risen at least 50 percent.

"And that has only just started," said Melissa Cáceres, a member of a local group co-ordinating the soup kitchen who is registered with the Libres del Sur group.

Often families will send in a child to pick up some food, to avoid being seen.

Argentina counts some 38,000 so-called "community dining halls," said Celeste Ortiz, spokeswoman for the Barrios de Pie social movement.

 

Minister under fire

In February, Argentina's conference of bishops called for "all spaces which give food... to receive help without delay."

Last week, hundreds of people lined up along 30 blocks after Human Capital Minister Sandra Pettovello told social movements complaining about the lack of food aid that anyone who was hungry should come "one by one" to see her.

She did not come out to see them.

Pettovello is currently the target of a lawsuit from a union leader over her Ministry's failure to deliver food.

The government has taken pains to show that Milei's mass deregulation of the economy will not hit the most vulnerable, doubling the value of food vouchers handed out to families.

In recent days, Pettovello has sealed aid programmes worth more than half a million dollars with evangelical churches and the Caritas Catholic charity.

However, Caritas has spoken out against the government's selective aid, saying "a country where poverty is increasing cannot tolerate partisan opinions, ideological prejudices and sectoral struggles."

While she is grateful for the Church's support, Cáceres regrets that "it seems that there are intermediaries who are worthwhile and others who are not.”

As the battle continues, the cooks in the San Martín soup kitchen breathe a sigh of relief after stretching their rations to feed all those who needed it for one more day.

Carina López sighs with relief: 130 rations were distributed in the dining hall and everyone received a full lunch.

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by Leila Macor, AFP

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