Community kitchens support working-class neighborhoods in Argentina


By Victoria Mortimer

BUENOS AIRES- When Mirta Otero answers the phone, his tone is reserved, less playful than usual. She says she contracted the coronavirus and is now one of many cases in her neighborhood. Otero is being treated at Muñiz Hospital, in Villa 21-24, an informal neighborhood in the Barracas neighborhood in southern Buenos Aires.

Even though she is hospitalized, Otero continues to help others. A little over a week ago, she left her son Maximiliano in charge of El Comedor Gargantas, a soup kitchen where they deliver around 1,300 food rations a day.

“I try to make the cooks feel as good as possible because there’s a lot of fear with everything that’s going on,” says Maximiliano. “People are in need, and they keep coming until the jars are empty.”

Structural inequalities have become more apparent in the COVID-19 pandemic. Argentina is no exception, and soup kitchens like Otero’s are often the last line of defense for poor families. As Argentina has drawn praise for its response to the coronavirus, life in the country’s most vulnerable neighborhoods is becoming increasingly difficult as the pandemic worsens the severe economic crisis that has followed the four-year administration. of former President Mauricio Macri.

The recent report “Impoverishment and social inequalities in times of pandemic”, from a series of studies published by the Argentinian Observatory of Social Debt (ODSA, for its acronym in Spanish), revealed that the majority of people living in poverty and vulnerable situations in Argentina are today subject to enormous constraints. Specialists attribute this to several causes: loneliness, the risks of cohabitation, the lack of income from informal jobs that families rely on and the impossibility of receiving the necessary care during the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, marginalized sectors of society are more likely to be exposed to the virus and other diseases, such as dengue fever.

Mandatory social distancing has led to a significant drop in household incomes. According to the report, in the metropolitan area of ​​Buenos Aires, 38.8% of households said that family income during the month of April fell by up to 50%, while for 18.8% the reduction was greater. at 50%.

“Although necessary, mandatory social distancing generates the exclusion of those whom effective social inclusion policies have not yet reached,” say the specialists in the report.

The early implementation of mandatory social distancing policies in Argentina has drawn international attention for its effectiveness in slowing the spread of the virus. In fact, days into the quarantine, President Alberto Fernández assured the public that “the economy will recover, but you can’t recover from death”, indicating that his government was on the right track.

To date, there are 44,931 people infected with the coronavirus and 1,049 deaths in the country. Buenos Aires and Chaco are the provinces with the highest incidence.

Although the virus arrived in Argentina in mid-March, when most of those infected were upper-class people who contracted it while traveling abroad, today the situation has changed.

In September 2019, the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INDEC, for its acronym in Spanish) reported that poverty rates had increased by more than 8% in the first half of the year, reaching 35.4% of Argentines: about 15.8 million people.

The role of comedians (soup kitchens) in the most vulnerable neighborhoods has been essential during the social and economic crisis, when basic inputs are scarce. “The logic of the comedores has always been to solve neighborhood problems in the face of a lack of state intervention,” explains Pablo Vitale, co-director of the Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y Justicia (ACIJ), a non-profit association lucrative. organization that works to defend the rights of the most vulnerable in society.

“We are completely abandoned and we survive thanks to the solidarity of people and the help of the food bank”, explains Gilda Prieto, founder of two comedores which depend on the non-profit association Madres sin Techo. They are in La Rubita, a settlement where 3,000 to 4,000 families live on the border between Resistencia and Barranquilla, in Chaco, one of the poorest provinces in Argentina.

People gather for a meal in a community kitchen in La Rubita (Gilda Prieto).

According to a survey by Banco de Alimentos — a food bank that has increased the volume of food and products delivered by 66% — only 30% of organizations providing food aid can meet the current demand.

The villas were already facing inequalities, says Vitale, “[including] lack of essential services such as access to water or overcrowding. Faced with the pandemic,[they] need to mobilize to survive, from commuting to obtaining food rations.

Vitale has worked for 20 years in Villa 31, the most emblematic popular neighborhood in Buenos Aires. It is located next to the main passenger transfer center of the capital and a few meters from the richest neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.

Vitale says that these neighborhoods need alternatives, because for their inhabitants it is not possible to apply the official prevention measures. “You can’t ask people who don’t have a home to comply with isolation. Yesterday I heard a phrase that resonated with me: “Isolation is a class privilege”.

Give more than food

Comodores have long played a central role in the life of these communities, and during the pandemic new organizations have begun to emerge to help more people every day.

the popular ollas (informal soups) were born in 1989 during the hyperinflation crisis. Later, these ollas populares were transformed into comedores and nativity scenes. Today, they are maintained largely with state aid or private donations.

While soup kitchens provide sustenance, villas face structural challenges in managing the pandemic. In the Chaco, Gilda Prieto of La Rubita says one of the main problems is the lack of access to water. While water is essential to maintain health by washing hands, the current situation has delayed the installation of a system to guarantee access to water in La Rubita.

The community kitchen of La Rubita (Gilda Prieto).

In addition to providing hundreds of food rations per day, the comedores also function as support centers, particularly for women, children and adolescents. “We also offer workshops and a space for women and children to gather, but with the pandemic we can no longer do that,” says Prieto.

The pandemic has also revealed the vulnerability of women and children in Argentina. According to the observatory of gender-based violence “Adriana Mariel Zambrano” of the Casa del Encuentro, there were 57 femicides of women and girls between March 20 and May 28. One in six of these women had already filed a complaint against their murderer. In addition to the murdered women and girls, the 77 children who were left without a mother are additional victims.

Lidia Giagnoni knows what it’s like to be hungry. The founder of the civil association Todos por los Niños was born in Villa Soldati and grew up between the school of a nun and the streets. At 15, she married to become an emancipated minor, to be able to get a job. In 1998, after graduating from nursing, she moved to Marcos Paz, a town west of Buenos Aires, with her children. She founded two comedians, one in the Barrio del Bicentenario and the other in La Trocha, two rural neighborhoods.

“Where I am in La Trocha, I see a lot of middle-class people who, with the economic crisis of recent years, are worse off. The pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Giagnoni, who receives a hundred families a day.

Giagnoni says mental health issues are one of the most serious consequences of the pandemic among vulnerable populations. Its comedor offers the delivery of food rations and creates a space for communication and support.

On May 11, the “new normal” phase of mandatory social distancing began. During this phase, sustained hygiene and precautions are encouraged. The entire territory has entered this phase, with the exception of the districts where there is community circulation of the virus, such as San Fernando (Chaco), Rawson (Chubut), Bariloche and General Roca (Río Negro), the Gran Córdoba (Córdoba) and the 41 districts of the metropolitan area of ​​Buenos Aires. These areas are still in a more restrictive phase.

“There is a lot of uncertainty, and on top of that, there is no work,” says Giagnoni. “Here, the one who has a job is the one who goes to town. Now it’s impossible because of the mandatory isolation.

This story was originally published by Latin America News Dispatch. Access the original story here.


Victoria Mortimer is a freelance journalist in Buenos Aires and social media coordinator for Infancia en Deuda. Follow her on Twitter @vicmortimer.

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