LIMA – The announcement of a new quarantine came like a “bucket of cold water” in Peru’s most disadvantaged communities, where the local soup kitchens are trying desperately to feed the public amid the coronavirus pandemic as everyone waits for the authorities to come to the rescue.
In the so-called “human settlement” of Buena Vista, in Lima’s populous Villa Maria del Triunfo district, for more than 10 months, the La Milagrosa soup kitchen has been selling for the symbolic price of two soles ($0.56) a plate of food each day to more than 140 families, a figure that has been growing since the government’s implementation of a new lockdown to try and halt the devastating second wave of COVID-19.
“Now that the families are returning, from where are we going to get our support? … There’s no (cooking) gas, no salt, no wood … We don’t have any help from anyone … We’re forgotten here,” Aurora Ayala Escalante, one of the soup kitchen’s organizers, told EFE.
La Milagrosa was started up last March because of the local need to get through the neighborhood’s difficulties of no work, no money and no food.
The 37-year-old Ayala lives with her husband and daughter in one of the plywood shacks with corrugated iron roofs on a hillside where there’s no potable water or proper sewer drainage.
Every day, Ayala supervises the work of the locals for eight hours as they work their weekly shifts juggling the scanty food donations they receive, convinced that they need to “keep fighting to survive” despite the uncertainty and lack of institutional aid.
“We don’t have any supplies, we have just enough for two weeks and I don’t know what we’re going to do” after that, Ayala said, unable to hold back her tears recalling one day when her eight-year-old daughter asked her for a plate of food for dinner and she could only give her a glass of milk.
Another local resident, Luisa Suarez Cuya, 47, was silent for a time after she was asked about La Milagrosa running out of food. “We live from the people who help out,” she finally said, her voice breaking.
In fact, her family doesn’t get anything to eat except the lunch the soup kitchen provides to them and even paying the two soles each day is “really difficult.”
“We worked to pay our daily expenses and my husband and I have been left without any work,” she said, adding that her 85-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer’s, lives with them, too.
Like Suarez, many people here are living with the worry and lack of confidence brought about by this second quarantine, which is putting the deadly squeeze on the neighborhood soup kitchens that were set up to deal with the early challenges of the pandemic and which, just in Lima, number at least 1,030, according to the latest official tally.
The kitchens “were not supplied to deal with the second quarantine because donations really fell off hugely in the last quarter of last year,” Gianina Melendez, one of the founders of Manos a la Olla, a collective that “operates and supplies” three soup kitchens in Villa Maria del Triunfo and another in the neighboring San Juan de Miraflores district, told EFE.
“It was like a bucket of cold water when the president came out and (announced the quarantine) but without giving any clear way to support (the soup kitchens),” Melendez said, adding that the main problem is in the authorities’ “lack of transparency” and the fact that there’s no guarantee that they will fulfill “their promises.”
“Last year, it was decided that they were going to provide assistance, but they didn’t … (and) the food baskets didn’t arrive and the subsidy didn’t get to half the population” who needed it, she said.
This time around, after last week announcing the renewal of the lockdown, President Francisco Sagasti said that the government would provide food aid to the neighborhood kitchens, but “they never said how or when or where,” the collective’s spokesperson said.
In practice, the lack of confidence and the scarcity of resources means that many of the kitchens are just scraping buy, cooking with wood to save on gas and offering meat or fish just once a week because they “don’t have any more” than that.
The La Esperanza soup kitchen, for example, divided two chickens among 100 plates of noodles they prepared for the Nueva Vista community, located just a few meters from La Milagrosa.
There, local residents take turns cooking an average of 90 meals for the community starting at 8:00 am.
Just a few minutes after noon, when the food is ready, a whistle calls dozens of residents, bringing their plates and wearing facemasks, keeping a meter away from each other and forming a line in front of the kitchen.
Over the past few months, although the organization has managed to get through the initial period, it’s not known what the future will bring. How long will the new quarantine last? It’s scheduled for two weeks, but who knows? And who knows how many new families will need to rely on it for their meals, and for their water?
Since the second quarter of 2020, the Peruvian government has been providing free refills for water containers in the areas around Lima that lack access to the potable water and sewage network.
The Villa Maria del Triunfo soup kitchens use that government water to cook and clean the food, but the free service is likely to be cut off sometime in March.
“Where are we going to get 60 soles (about $17) for two tanks (of water) per week? We’re very worried,” said Ayala, adding “Our government says ‘wash your hands, take care of yourselves’ but if there’s no water, how can we do that?”
Despite everything, the soup kitchen operators say they will “press on” and will work to cement their initiatives and transform the informal kitchens into more established eateries with an eye toward getting the government aid they need but which is not arriving.