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Food Prices Hit Soup Kitchens Hard

In Argentina, spiraling costs are threatening the most vulnerable.
 
 
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BUENOS AIRES, Sep 20 -- "It breaks my heart because I know these kids don't have anything to eat, but I can't serve any more people," says Estela Esquivel, talking about children who have been turned away at dinnertime from the La Casita de la Virgen soup kitchen in La Cava, a slum neighborhood on the north side of the Argentine capital.

Today's soaring food prices are forcing growing numbers of poor people in Argentina to turn to soup kitchens, which can no longer keep up with demand and have no choice but to limit how many people they can feed. Some have begun to draw up waiting lists.

Esquivel's soup kitchen in La Cava, a vast shantytown in the upscale Buenos Aires suburb of San Isidro, feeds dinner to 160 children and their mothers every evening in groups of 35, the maximum number of people that can fit at the tables.

"Two years ago we were feeding twice as many people," she tells IPS. "But it's not that the need has gone down, it's just that we receive so much less food. Hardly anyone donates any more, and what the municipal government gives us for a month is gone in 15 days."

The inability of soup kitchens to meet demand also reflects the impact of the rising prices of basic food products on the poor, whether or not they are unemployed.

"Some of them work, but they come here to eat because they can't afford to buy food," says Esquivel.

In the province of Buenos Aires, the country's most populous, Minister of Social Development Daniel Arroyo said the increase in food prices has led to an expansion of the provincial budget for soup kitchens. "Since March, the demand for food has been going up," the official told the local press.

The national statistics institute, INDEC, reports that the poverty rate declined from a record high of 54 percent in 2002, at the peak of Argentina's worst-ever economic crisis, to 20.6 percent in March this year.

However, private consultants are skeptical of INDEC's figures. In response to questions from IPS, sociologist Ernesto Kritz, with the Sel Consultores polling firm, said poverty began to grow again in 2007, to 31.6 percent of the population in the first half of this year.

INDEC was taken over 20 months ago by interior commerce secretary Guillermo Moreno, and there is widespread suspicion that its data is meddled with.

Official inflation figures are also widely questioned. According to INDEC, inflation has stood at 9.1 percent over the last year, and at three percent for food prices. But private studies have concluded that prices have risen 25 to 30 percent on average over the past year.

And the cost of some staples, like flour or cooking oil, has risen above average, making access to such products difficult, but not because of shortages. In fact, Argentina produces enough beef, grains, cooking oil and fruit for a population 10 times larger than its 38 million people.

An August report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states that the global rise in food prices is threatening the economic and social achievements made in Latin America in recent years, such as steady economic growth and a decline in unemployment and poverty rates.

The report, "Increase in the Price of Food in Latin America and the Caribbean", available in Spanish, says that growing inequality of income in a region where it is already extremely unequal is the main impact to be expected from the rise in food prices, which endangers the advances made by several countries in the region towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Regionwide, average food prices doubled over the year up to July, according to FAO, which reported that while average inflation in the region stood at 6.3 percent in 2007, it had risen to 8.7 percent by July, and to two-digit figures in some countries.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) reported earlier this year that the current 15 percent increase in food prices in the region would drive up the extreme poverty rate from 12.7 to 15.9 percent of the population.

"We now have a set number of 350 babies, children, adolescents and adults who we provide with breakfast and lunch every day," says María Rosa Rodríguez at the "Casa del Niño" (Children's House) soup kitchen run by the Fundación Padre Farinello (Father Farinello Foundation) in Quilmes, a working-class suburb on the south side of Buenos Aires.

"Luckily we receive a lot of donations. Father (Luis) Farinello is very well-known, and we also get financial assistance from the government of the province of Buenos Aires," she tells IPS. The Catholic priest has worked for years among the soup kitchens catering to the residents of poor neighborhoods in Buenos Aires.

However, the assistance does not help the poorest families improve their living conditions, says Rodríguez. "I've been working here for years, and what I see is that the neediest people are unable to change their lives."

"There are many women and men who barely have the strength to look for a job, and if they do find one, they are paid so little that they are unable to improve their lot in life," she says.

Rodríguez says the soup kitchen where she works has enough food to serve everyone who shows up for lunch, but that she doesn't know what they do for dinner. "Maybe they don't eat dinner. I have noticed that the children are eating their breakfast more eagerly than ever. Many ask for two cups of milk and more bread," she says.

The activist, who is in charge of educational aspects at the child care centre linked to the soup kitchen, expresses her concern at another sign that needs are increasing: Children are getting involved in informal garbage picking at earlier and earlier ages. Instead of starting at age 12, as in the past, "kids are going out with the carts at 10, and permanently drop out of school," she says.

Needs have also become more pressing in other parts of the country. The Asociación de Comedores Comunitarios de Corrientes, which groups soup kitchens in Corrientes, one of the country's poorest provinces, warned last month that the number of people coming in for meals had gone up 30 percent since April, and called for more donations and government aid.

 
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