A growing hunger: Argentina’s soup kitchens battle Milei’s spending cuts

Under President Javier Milei, Argentina’s government has cut funds to community kitchens, sparking mass protests.

Protesters in Argentina carry aloft an effigy of President Javier Milei
Protesters on January 24 raise an effigy of newly inaugurated President Javier Milei [Patricio A Cabezas/Al Jazeera]

Buenos Aires, Argentina – It is an unusually hot Friday morning but the line outside the communal soup kitchen in Merlo — a town on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina — is particularly long, stretching around the block.

Some of the people waiting are first-timers, fidgeting with empty plastic containers in their hands. Many have jobs. Still, the rice stew the soup kitchen is ladling out could be their only meal of the day.

Similar scenes have been playing out across Argentina in recent weeks. As inflation skyrockets, advocates and everyday citizens are warning of a hunger crisis that could ravage the country’s poor.

Much of the outcry has been directed at libertarian President Javier Milei. Less than three months into his term, Milei’s administration has implemented a series of austerity measures that have slashed government spending — including funds already allocated for soup kitchens, or “comedores”, like the one in Merlo.

“Demand for food has doubled in recent months,” said Liliana Soledad Loto, 38, one of the soup kitchen’s cooks and a leader of the social organisation Somos Barrios de Pie.

“We have seen many more people come, including people with jobs, people who work in construction or in factories and still cannot make it to the end of the month. These people don’t come because they want to. They do it because they need to.”

The institution where she works, the Padre Mugica soup kitchen, is one of approximately 38,000 social organisations that distribute meals to Argentinians in need. Together, they serve an estimated 10 million people, out of a total population of 46 million.

But advocates say the number of people experiencing food insecurity could be even higher, with some of the neediest individuals going uncounted.

That is because some communities, particularly in marginalised areas, have informal systems to address hunger: neighbours helping neighbours individually, by offering free meals or even a simple cup of milk to children in need.

A queue of people wait outside a soup kitchen, located in a purple, multi-story building with an awning.
A line forms outside the Padre Mugica soup kitchen in Merlo, Argentina [Patricio A Cabezas/Al Jazeera]

Government clashes with protesters

Outrage over the rising numbers has grown this month, particularly after news cameras captured a member of Milei’s administration, Sandra Pettovello, clashing with protesters over the issue.

Pettovello is the head of the Ministry of Human Capital, a newly created entity designed to replace the government agencies overseeing education, social security, labour, welfare and culture.

Her ministry governs the distribution of federal money assigned to social programmes. But those funds have been curtailed since December, when Milei took office.

In a bid to reduce federal debt, Milei cut public spending, including money already budgeted for community kitchens. Pettovello has argued the cuts were necessary to eliminate the “poverty managers” who serve as “problematic” intermediaries between the government and its people.

On February 1, Pettovello confronted picketers at the gates of her ministry, where news outlets recorded her statements. She told the demonstrators that “anyone who is hungry” can come to her directly for assistance.

“Let them come,” she said of those in need. “Come one by one, and I will write down your ID number, your name, where you are from. And you will receive help individually.”

A man in a grey shirt stands in a cluttered room.
Worker Diego Markus says the government is ‘stigmatising’ soup kitchens [Patricio A Cabezas/Al Jazeera]

The following day, thousands of people queued outside her office. Local news outlets reported the line snaked past nearly 20 city blocks.

Pettovello, however, refused to meet with them. Instead, she signed an agreement to distribute a fraction of the funds allocated to combat hunger to two religious organisations associated with the evangelical and Catholic churches.

“The government says that help needs to reach those in need directly, and we agree with that. Help needs to reach people in any way,” said Diego Markus, 27, a social leader who works in soup kitchens in La Matanza, one of the poorest districts in the greater Buenos Aires area.

“The problem is that people are not receiving anything.”

Markus disputes the notion that community outreach organisations have siphoned government funds with little oversight or transparency, a criticism raised by Milei’s administration.

“The government knows where we are, what we do. People from each administration have come to check what we do, and everything is registered,” he said. “What the government is doing is stigmatising us for what we do.”

Even the Argentinian Episcopal Conference, a Catholic leadership body, denounced the newly implemented cuts.

“All care spaces that provide food, all community kitchens, parish kitchens, evangelical churches and popular movements must receive help without delay,” the group wrote in a statement. “Food cannot be used as a variable for [economic] adjustment.”

A protester in Buenos Aires stands in front of a row of police officer.
A protester confronts a row of police officers near the Ministry of Human Capital in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on February 23 [Josefina Salomon/Al Jazeera]

Poverty expected to rise

The loss in funds, in the meantime, has left some soup kitchens and food pantries struggling to accommodate a burgeoning number of clients.

Argentina has fallen deep into an economic crisis, with an annual inflation rate of nearly 255 percent. More than 57 percent of its population lives below the poverty line — the highest rate in 20 years, according to a report this month from the Universidad Católica Argentina.

The report warned that the number is expected to grow, as prices for electricity, gas, public transport and health insurance are set to rise in March.

To help address its poverty, Argentina has long relied on community kitchens, traditionally financed through a combination of state and federal resources. But with future funds in peril, some pantries are questioning how long they can stay open.

Veronica Cussimamani, 30, and Zulma Mejia, 27, work in Sol y Tierra, a soup kitchen and community centre in Villa Celina, part of La Matanza.

They say the number of people arriving for food has risen each week, but the pile of pasta, rice and polenta they have has decreased. With less available to cook, four tall metal pots sit empty in a corner of their kitchen, ready and waiting atop a cold stove.

The kitchen, which opened in 2018, used to feed 300 people every day of the week. Since government assistance stopped arriving two months ago, Sol y Tierra has only been able to offer meals twice a week.

“We get creative and still really struggle to make ends meet. When we are closed, people have to try and find somewhere else to get food from,” Mejia told Al Jazeera as she looked at her dwindling pile of food packets.

Three people sit in a darkened kitchen space: two women on either side of a man who is speaking.
Zulma Mejia, Beto Acebay and Veronica Cussimamani work at the soup kitchen Sol y Tierra, which has had to reduce its operating hours [Patricio A Cabezas/Al Jazeera]

Inflation forces kitchens to shutter

Cussimamani added that Sol y Tierra has sought donations from local shops, but with budgets running tight — and the Argentinian peso worth less and less — fewer businesses are willing and able to participate.

“The local butcher used to donate, but now even he is struggling,” she explained. “The same with the vegetable shops: They used to give us the things they couldn’t sell, but now they just reduce the price and try to sell it, as everybody is looking to make ends meet.”

Liliana Soledad Loto and Tamara del Valle Albornoz
Liliana Soledad Loto, right, with her colleague Tamara del Valle Albornoz [Patricio A Cabezas/Al Jazeera]

Inflation and the resulting price increases have also chipped away at the soup kitchens’ operating budgets. Soledad Loto, the cook at the Padre Mugica kitchen, said her organisation has already had to cut its opening days to three a week.

“To cook anything, you also need to get gas. The gas bottle used to be 2,000 pesos [$2.38], and now it’s 12,000 pesos [$14.27]. We use one bottle every two weeks. It’s almost impossible to continue like this,” she said.

Some smaller community kitchens have been forced to shut down altogether, she added. Many serve remote or marginalised areas where resources are already scant.

Hunger is particularly dangerous for children, for whom malnutrition can have lifelong effects, ranging from stunted growth to weakened immune systems. As of 2023, more than 56 percent of children aged 14 and younger fell below the poverty line.

“Without food, kids don’t have the energy to do anything. They get sick. That is the problem. And things are likely to get even worse,” said Beto Acebay, 27, who works in a soup kitchen in La Matanza.

“It’s heartbreaking when children come, knowing that we have nothing to give them. We always try to make things work, but it is getting very very difficult.”

A woman in a red apron stands in front of a hand-painted protest banner.
Protester Marisela Escalante, centre, called on the Argentinian government to make the ‘food emergency’ its first priority [Josefina Salomon/Al Jazeera]

Challenging times ahead

President Milei has warned that more challenging times are on the horizon. “We know that the situation will get worse,” he said in his inaugural address in December. “But we will see the fruits of our labours.”

But activists concerned about the hunger crisis argue there is no time to spare. They urged the government to reinstate funding and food deliveries to the communal soup kitchens to prevent further harm.

Some picketers have even taken to banging pots and pans — a form of protest known as “cacerolazo”. Named for a type of stew pan, cacerolazo demonstrations have become widespread in Latin America, the cacophony of empty, clattering dishes particularly poignant during times of food shortages.

On Friday, further protests erupted near the Ministry of Human Capital, with hundreds of people gathering in the wealthy Barrio Norte neighbourhood of Buenos Aires.

Federal police tried unsuccessfully to keep protesters from blocking the large avenue outside the ministry. But crowds clogged the thoroughfare, chanting protest songs and carrying banners and signs that read, “Hunger cannot wait.”

“The food emergency should be the government’s first priority, but they are not doing anything about it. The minister refuses to speak with us, so we have to keep coming,” said Marisela Escalante, who cooks in a soup kitchen in Villa 31, a low-income neighbourhood located in the middle of one of Buenos Aires’s richest areas.

“The situation is infuriating. We have not received any food in two months. Some soup kitchens had to shut down. The only ones that remain open are those that manage to gather help from neighbours and others. We need answers.”

Meanwhile, cooks in community kitchens across the country continue to keep their stoves burning and their pans hot, trying to answer Argentina’s rumbling hunger.

“Why do I go on?” asked Judit Hanco, 40, who receives a government stipend and volunteers by cooking twice a week at Sol y Tierra. “Because many families need us. Helping them not to be hungry is what gives me strength to go on.”

Source: Al Jazeera