What united us was empathy: Community organizations help tackle hunger in Argentina

The pandemic brought with it more inequality and injustice. Grassroots movements responded with solidarity and organization and food for those who were struggling

September 09, 2021 by Julián Inzaugarat, Ana Dagorret
Children’s Day in Villa del Parque, Luján, organized by the people’s organizations. Photo: Victoria Nordenstahl

What will the world be like when we emerge from the pandemic? Will we have a fairer and more caring world? Will there be a decline in individualism and a debunking of the myth of meritocracy? These were some of the questions that analysts, politicians, journalists and society as a whole asked themselves at the beginning of this global pandemic.

The hope that this health crisis would become the engine for a more just world and the teachings of collective care faded as the pandemic advanced with increasing force. As the pandemic intensified, the philosophy of ‘every man for himself’ was embraced by most governments across the world, instead of ‘we will come out of this better and all of us together.’ Social movements had to fill the void.

After more than a year and a half of isolation, evidence shows that the world has not changed. The pandemic deepened pre-existing social inequalities and the beneficiaries were the same as always.

2020 saw billionaires increasing their wealth by $5 trillion and an unprecedented rise in their numbers. Data published in January 2020 by OXFAM indicated that the richest 1% percent (around 2150 people) had more wealth than 60% of the world’s population (around 4.6 billion people).

Inequality and poverty also grew in the world, particularly in Latin America. Data from The World published in June 2021 indicated that an additional 97 million people were pushed into extreme poverty in 2020.

Argentina is going backwards

In Argentina, the data released by INDEC at the end of March 2021 is conclusive in this regard: 42% of the population is living below the poverty line (one point more than during the second half of 2019) and 10.5% of the population is in extreme poverty (two points more with respect to the same period). The aggravating factor for those in extreme poverty is the gap between the average family income and the price for the basic food basket. This gap has been widening regularly as a result of uncontrolled inflation. In other words, those who are below the extreme poverty line are getting poorer and poorer. This shows that the pandemic has fundamentally affected those who have the least and has deepened social inequality.

The most affected by the crisis are young people: nearly 8.3 million girls and boys are living in monetary poverty, that is, 62.9% of the total population of children and adolescents. And 2.4 million are in extreme poverty.

A community kitchen in Luján on Workers’ Day. Photo: Victoria Nordenstahl

In this context, the national government, through the Ministry of Social Development, launched the “Argentina against hunger” program to support the most vulnerable sectors of society. Around $133,234 million pesos was invested in 2020, an increase of 451% over the previous year.

Through the Alimentar Card, the first measure of the Council against Hunger, around 95 million pesos were invested throughout the country. As of August 20, a total of 3,885,067 people had been granted benefits through the Card including 3,764,278 families with children under the age of 14; 48,820 families with children with disabilities; and 71,969 people who are pregnant.

The recipients of the program receive the following amounts: 6,000 pesos per month for those who have one child, 9,000 for those with two children, and 12,000 for those with three or more children. As part of this program, funds were also allocated to canteens and community kitchens which distribute food to vulnerable families and communities.

Another of the Argentine government’s initiatives was the extraordinary tax on large fortunes, aimed at taxpayers with declared income of more than 200 million pesos. By the end of April, close to 80% of this group had already paid this tax and the State was able to collect 223 billion pesos for the purchase of medical equipment, subsidies for SMEs, student scholarships and housing programs in poor neighborhoods. Of the 2,000 or so people who did not pay, some went so far as to file lawsuits calling the measure illegal and unconstitutional.

Solidarity and organization: the pillars of the food assistance program

The impact of four years of neoliberal policies and the restrictions due to the pandemic prevented many from doing informal work.  With the majority unable to make ends meet, the population suffering from food insecurity grew. At this point, social and community organizations – driven by the spirit of solidarity – emerged to coordinate with the State to ameliorate the issues faced by the people.

A women prepares food in the Parque Lasa Community Kitchen in Luján that was organized with CTD-Anibal Verón. Photo: Facundo Felice

Parque Lasa is a neighborhood in the city of Luján, a municipality of 120,000 inhabitants located to the west of the populous province of Buenos Aires. It is a neighborhood that has historically been forgotten by the State.

During the most severe stage of the quarantine, more than 200 meals were prepared at the neighborhood’s Sociedad de Fomento (a non-profit, neighborhood organization that works to support the community) from Monday to Friday to assist the families hardest hit by the economic crisis.

Juan Acotto from the Coordinadora de Trabajadores Desocupados -CTD Anibal Verón [Movement of Unemployed Workers-Anibal Verón] recalled how the organization offered to help the municipal authorities when the isolation measures were announced. “While the primary thing was to abide by the isolation measures, we knew that there was going to be an impact on the economy of those who lead a hand-to-mouth existence.”

In the different food assistance spaces operating in the whole area of the Luján, more than 9,000 families and an estimated population of more than 35,000 were supported on a monthly basis.

Food distribution in a community kitchen in Luján. Photo: Victoria Nordenstahl

The municipality coordinated with social organizations that promoted soup kitchens in the neighborhoods. Through soup kitchens and snack bars, 1,600 families were assisted, which is equivalent to 6,500 people.

Juan said that the Human Development Area and the Food Emergency Committee called a meeting to organize the assistance system. They set up a series of neighborhood-based groups to carry out work with social organizations.

“In Parque Lasa, the organization had already been operating a community kitchen for years.” He added: “We made this space available and then we started to work together with the Sociedad de Fomento and the Centro de Atención Primaria de Salud (Primary Health Care Center). This is how the sub-command of Parque Lasa, Americano, Barrio Universidad and El Trébol was formed.”

The leader from CTD – Anibal Verón highlighted two concepts: solidarity and organization. “When confronted with this situation, there was and continues to be a lot of solidarity in our community. We know of neighbors – comrades who day after day give their all to meet the challenge that is hunger in such poor neighborhoods.”

Echoing this sentiment was Elías Sosa, a resident of the community who approached the Sociedad de Fomento, eager to volunteer at the community kitchen. “These situations are when solidarity and social commitment become visible,” he said, adding that the members of the community were among the worst hit by the pandemic and isolation measures. “Although we are all going through this moment in different ways, I think what united us was empathy,” he said.

Food being served at the Parque Lasa Community Kitchen in Luján organized with CTD-Anibal Verón. Photo: Facundo Felice

He expressed the hope that this time would be used by the State and different social, militant and neighborhood organizations to work together and effectively contribute to addressing the problems people are facing.

The sense of abandonment felt by many communities throughout Argentina showed the State the urgent need to implement measures to confront the structural problems of the country. The solidarity of social organizations and neighborhood groups was one of the driving forces that made it possible for the excluded to survive.

With the pandemic far from over, the slow immunization and the increasingly radicalized discourse of an unscrupulous political opposition hungry for power make it clear that the need of the hour is to vanquish the hunger that plagues the majority. This alone will make it possible to advance in the resolution of other pressing issues such as education and development, which could finally give back to Argentine men and women the dignity taken away by the years of voracious neoliberalism.

Hunger in the World is a collaborative series produced by ARG Medios, Brasil de Fato, Breakthrough News, Madaar, New Frame, Newsclick and Peoples Dispatch.