Showing posts with label Hunger. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hunger. Show all posts

May 14, 2020

Child Hunger in Puerto Rico Has Become a Flashpoint


 

 

 It hadn't been easy, but before the pandemic Elia Gonzalez had always managed to keep her family fed by stretching her food stamps and her partner's modest income as a D.J. at bars around Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan. That changed in mid-March, when those bars closed and her daughter's school, where she'd gotten free breakfast and lunch, did too.

By April 20, the kitchen cabinet was almost empty. Gonzalez and her partner, who is undocumented and does not qualify for unemployment, went four days without eating so they'd have enough food for the children until Gonzalez's next monthly food stamps benefit landed on her EBT card in early May. Still, by the end of April, all she had left for the children was rice with a little egg mixed in.

Her sons, shy 4 and 5-year-olds, would ask for more. But her oldest, Angellia, a talkative, curly-haired kindergartener, tried to reassure her mother.

"She said, 'Mamá, I'm still hungry'," Gonzalez said, "but she told me it was okay because she was big and could wait until I got more food. That hit me hard."

A worker in Vega Alta, P.R. In March, the island's governor imposed strict lockdown measures to control the COVID-19 outbreak.
 
The coronavirus emergency has worsened hunger nationally, with recent polling finding that one in five U.S. households can't afford enough to eat. But Puerto Rico's rates of food insecurity have been higher than that since long before the pandemic. The U.S. territory has a higher poverty rate than any state.

A study by the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics in 2015 found that 22 percent of adults reported skipping meals or eating smaller portions because they didn't have money for food. That was before the island's bankruptcy, a string of natural disasters, and now the coronavirus lockdown, which closed businesses but also the schools that provided two daily meals to a majority of Puerto Rico's schoolchildren. 




"And so it's not an exaggeration to say that hunger in Puerto Rico right now is probably much higher than it was in 2015," said José Caraballo-Cueto, an economist at the University of Puerto Rico's campus in the city of Cayey. He estimates that the pandemic has driven the island's unemployment rate to an astounding 46 percent. "And the average saving rate here is zero. So if you have a social crisis like this, people don't have that buffer during the lockdown."


People waited to pick up meals for their children at a public school cafeteria in Vega Alta, P.R., on May 6. The island's governor initially refused to open the cafeterias, but public pressure changed her mind.
 
In recent days, it's a fight over the shuttered school cafeterias that has brought the issue of hunger on the island – and specifically childhood hunger — into full view.

Governor Wanda Vázquez earned early praise for taking aggressive steps to combat the coronavirus. But after closing schools on March 16, she refused to allow their cafeterias to continue providing free lunches to children, as they have in most communities in the U.S. The governor initially said she feared exposing cafeteria workers to the virus. Many of those workers are older women.

But as the lockdown dragged on, as bureaucratic hurdles delayed the arrival of federal stimulus and unemployment payments, and as the local government struggled to process a surge in new food stamp applications, people's patience wore thin.

On social media, stories circulated about people like Elia Gonzalez who had run out of food for their children. One mother, Genesis Montañez, wrote to her son's teacher that all she had for her kids was water. Parents and politicians demanded the cafeterias reopen. Cafeteria employees said that with proper protective equipment, they were willing to go back to work. Activists sued and announced a protest of cars winding through the streets of San Juan.


Cafeteria workers packed food to go on the first day school lunch rooms were allowed to open nearly two months after the start of Puerto Rico's lockdown.
 
On April 29, the governor acquiesced, saying a limited number of cafeterias would be allowed to reopen the following week. The island's 78 mayors would coordinate delivery of the meals to children who needed them.

"Public opinion really forced the government to reconsider its decision and reopen the lunch rooms," said Denise Santos, president of the Puerto Rico Food Bank. She said that after the schools closed, she was inundated with more requests for food for children than the food bank could meet. "Most Puerto Ricans live from paycheck to paycheck, so eight weeks without any income made the situation very urgent for a lot of families."

The first 80 cafeterias opened on May 6, and it was a fitful start. Many mayors reported that the island's education department delivered far less food than they needed or had requested. Others, like the mayor of the coastal town of Loíza, postponed meal distributions until this week rather than risk having to turn children away. Several cafeteria workers screened for COVID-19 tested positive, delaying the opening of at least one kitchen.


In the the town of Vega Alta, workers prepared meals for 800 children. Mayors across the island have complained they aren't getting enough food for all the children who need it.
 
On Monday, the island's education secretary, Eligio Hernández, said his department had opened another 28 cafeterias this week and was preparing nearly 64,000 lunches a day. He also said families in some rural towns could sign up to have nonperishable food mailed to their homes. But criticism has not subsided.

"The government has only served 10 percent of children," said Giovanni Roberto, a prominent anti-hunger activist who runs a small network of community soup kitchens, known as comedores sociales. "Our demands are clear. Open all school cafeterias, and serve everyone who needs it."

In recent weeks, Roberto has been leading the calls to open the cafeterias. His profile was raised further when he was arrested on April 30 while leading the caravan of cars making their way through the streets of San Juan in protest. He was charged with violating the governor's stay-at-home order, but the arrest, broadcast on television, was widely criticized as unjustified. A judge dismissed the charges.


Giovanni Roberto leads a small network of community soup kitchens called comedores sociales. After he was arrested during an anti-hunger demonstration in late April, donations to the comedores surged.
 
The ordeal endeared many people in Puerto Rico to Roberto's cause. The community kitchens he runs with volunteers became an important source of food after Hurricane Maria, when the local and federal government failed to get supplies to people frantic for them. Since then, the comedores sociales have operated on shoestring budgets. But Roberto's recent prominence demanding the government do more to help Puerto Rico's poor during the pandemic has attracted tens of thousands of dollars in donations.

"We're improving our center to have a bigger warehouse," Roberto said. The main facility – a salvaged community center in the city of Caguas — has shifted to grocery giveaways rather than serving meals on site. "We've gotten a lot of support, so we've expanded from 200 weekly grocery deliveries to 700 this week."

Still, Roberto said that was not enough, and hoped the judge overseeing a lawsuit that advocates filed on behalf of several mothers will force the government to open more school cafeterias. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday. 

A man outside the site of a community kitchen — or comedor social — in the city of Caguas. The community kitchens became an important source of food after Hurricane Maria, when the local and federal governments failed to get supplies to people frantic for them. During the pandemic, the comedores have been providing free groceries.
 
Denise Santos, the food bank president, said the pandemic's economic fallout has elevated a conversation about hunger and poverty in Puerto Rico that politicians – and many citizens — prefer to avoid.

"Our politicians talk as if we were a first class country, and although there have been some programs in our history that have improved the middle class, in reality we are very poor. We always have been," Santos said. "But if you look at our Facebook page for the food bank, people comment that in Puerto Rico there is no hunger because everybody receives food stamps. People are in denial, period."

In the Río Piedras section of San Juan, Christel Galindez Garcia, a community leader, saw the hunger in her neighborhood start to balloon within days of the island's shutdown.

"Older people, immigrants, mothers with children," Galindez said. She has been picking up thirty cooked meals a day from a church near her home and delivering them to people's houses. She visits different families every day.

"Do you know when you know people are really in need?" she asked. "When you show up with a plate of food and they start to cry."


  
Community leader Christel Galindez Garcia (left), distributes cooked meals to people in need. On May 6, she also brought cupcakes to the home of Elia Gonzalez, whose daughter Angellia turned six that day.
 
One of the people Galindez visited last Wednesday was Elia Gonzalez, who said that the day before, she'd gone through the last of the rice and egg she had been feeding her three kids.

"Right now I have nothing in the kitchen," Gonzalez said. "Nothing, nothing."

Though some school cafeterias had distributed meals that day, she said none were close to her apartment, and she doesn't have a car. Her federal stimulus payment was nowhere in sight because the island's treasury secretary, charged with distributing that money on behalf of the federal government, has said that people receiving food assistance will be among the last to get it.

"And we're the ones who need that help the most," Gonzalez said. On the bright side, her monthly food stamps had just arrived, and that would let her restock her kitchen. Without her partner's income, she said, she could buy enough food for two to three weeks.

Wednesday was also her daughter Angellia's sixth birthday.

Christel Galindez, the community leader, knew this, and during her food delivery run, she drove up to Gonzalez's front door playing the birthday song through her car's speakers. She used a P.A. system to summon Angellia outside. The little girl emerged with a big smile, and spun a little pirouette to the music.

Galindez handed Gonzalez three to-go-containers of food and a box with three cupcakes, one for each of her children.

Erika P. Rodríguez contributed reporting from San Juan, P.R  

August 15, 2017

Venezuelans to Columbians, 'Brother Can You Spare a Little Food?'



 A woman carrying a bundle on her head waits in line to cross the border into Colombia through the Simon Bolivar International Bridge in San Antonio del Tachira, Venezuela, July 17, 2016. 
CUCUTA, COLOMBIA — 

Under a scorching sun just a short walk from Colombia's border with Venezuela, hundreds of hungry men, women and children line up for bowls of chicken and rice — the first full meal some have eaten in days.

An estimated 25,000 Venezuelans make the trek across the Simon Bolivar International Bridge into Colombia each day. Many come for a few hours to work or trade goods on the black market, looking for household supplies they cannot find back home.

But increasingly, they are coming to eat in one of a half-dozen facilities offering struggling Venezuelans a free plate of food.

"I never thought I'd say this," said Erick Oropeza, 29, a former worker with Venezuela's Ministry of Education who recently began crossing the bridge at 4 a.m. each day. "But I'm more grateful for what Colombia has offered me in this short time than what I ever received from Venezuela my entire life."

As Venezuela's economy verges on collapse and its political upheaval worsens, cities like Cucuta along Colombia's porous, 1,370-mile (2,200-kilometer) border with Venezuela have become firsthand witnesses to the neighboring South American nation's escalating humanitarian crisis.

According to one recent survey, about 75 percent of Venezuelans lost an average of 19 pounds (8.7 kilograms) last year.

The Colombian government has crafted contingency plans in the event of a sudden, mass exodus, but already church groups and nonprofit organizations are stepping in, moved by images of mothers carrying starving babies and skinny men trying to make a few bucks on Cucuta's streets to bring back home.

Paulina Toledo, 47, a Colombian hairstylist who recently helped feed lunch to 900 Venezuelans, said seeing how hungry they were "hurt my soul."

"Those of us here on the border are seeing their pain," she said.

People living on either side of the Colombia-Venezuela border have long had a foot in both countries: A Colombian who lives in Cucuta might cross to visit relatives in San Cristobal; a Venezuelan might make the reverse trip to work or go to school.

In the years when Venezuela's oil industry was booming and Colombia entangled in a half-century armed conflict, an estimated 4 million Colombians migrated to Venezuela. Many started coming back as Venezuela's economy began to implode and after Maduro closed the border in 2015 and expelled 20,000 Colombians overnight.

Oropeza said he earned about $70 a month working at the Ministry of Education and selling hamburgers on the side — twice Venezuela's minimum wage but still not enough to feed a family of four. Once a month his family receives a bundle of food provided by the government, but it only lasts a week.

"So the other three weeks, like most Venezuelans, we have to make magic happen," he said on a recent afternoon.

Desperate for money to feed his family, he left his job and traveled to the Venezuelan border town of San Antonio. He wakes up at 4 a.m. each morning to be among the first crossing the bridge into Cucuta, where he earns money selling soft drinks on the street.

He goes straight to the "Casa de Paso," a church-run shelter that has served 60,000 meals to Venezuelans since opening two months ago. On an average day, 2,000 Venezuelans line up for meals, getting a ticket to reserve their spot and then waiting four hours for a meal served at outdoor plastic tables.

Workers stir gigantic metal pots filled with chicken and rice set on the bare dirt floor. Volunteers hand out boxes of juice to tired-looking children. Adults sit quietly, savoring their bowl of food as chickens waddle between them.

"Every day I have to remind myself why I am here," said Oropeza, dressed in a faded striped collared shirt. "I try to repeat it to myself so that I won't, you know, so those moments of weakness don't affect you so much."

When he's not helping out or waiting in line at the shelter kitchen, Oropeza sells malted soft drinks for about 50 cents each. He's been able to bring money back to his family and has earned enough to buy a cellphone, which he'd lacked for two years.

Jose David Canas, a priest, said his church will continue to serve food "as long as God allows."

"Until they close the border," he said. "Until everything is eaten or until the province tells us that they no longer have lunches to give out. And then it's the end."

Voice of America


May 24, 2015

In France Supermarkets Give by law Spoiling Food to Needy } In US is thrown away or sold to Pantries




France supermarket
 According to official estimates, the average French person throws out 20kg-30kg of food a year – 7kg of which is still in its wrapping. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

French supermarkets will be banned from throwing away or destroying unsold food and must instead donate it to charities or for animal feed, under a law set to crack down on food waste.
The French national assembly voted unanimously to pass the legislation as France battles an epidemic of wasted food that has highlighted the divide between giant food firms and people who are struggling to eat. As MPs united in a rare cross-party consensus, the centre-right deputy Yves Jégo told parliament: “There’s an absolute urgency – charities are desperate for food. The most moving parts law is that it opens us up to others who are suffering.”
Supermarkets will be barred from deliberately spoiling unsold food so it cannot be eaten. Those with a footprint of 4,305 sq ft (400 sq m) or more will have to sign contracts with charities by July next year or face penalties including fines of up to €75,000 (£53,000) or two years in jail.
“It’s scandalous to see bleach being poured into supermarket dustbins along with edible foods,” said the Socialist deputy Guillaume Garot, a former food minister who proposed the bill.
In recent years, French media have highlighted how poor families, students, unemployed or homeless people often stealthily forage in supermarket bins at night to feed themselves, able to survive on edible products which had been thrown out just as their best-before dates approached.
But some supermarkets doused binned food in bleach to prevent potential food-poisoning by eating food from bins. Other supermarkets deliberately binned food in locked warehouses for collection by refuse trucks to stop scavengers.
The practice of foraging in supermarket bins is not without risk – some people picking through rotten fruit and rubbish to reach yoghurts, cheese platters or readymade pizzas have been stopped by police and faced criminal action for theft. In 2011, a 59-year-old father of six working for the minimum wage at a Monoprix supermarket in Marseille almost lost his job after a colleague called security when they saw him pick six melons and two lettuces out of a bin.
Pressure groups, recycling commandos and direct action foraging movements have been highlighting the issue of waste in France. Members of the Gars’pilleurs, an action group founded in Lyon, don gardening gloves to remove food from supermarket bins at night and redistribute it on the streets the next morning to raise awareness about waste, poverty and food distribution.
The group and four others issued a statement earlier this year warning that simply obliging supermarket giants to pass unsold food to charities could give a “false and dangerous idea of a magic solution” to food waste. They said it would create an illusion that supermarkets had done their bit, while failing to address the wider issue of overproduction in the food industry as well as the wastage in food distribution chains.
The law will also introduce an education programme about food waste in schools and businesses. It follows a measure in February to remove the best-before dates on fresh foods.
The measures are part of wider drive to halve the amount of food waste in France by 2025. According to official estimates, the average French person throws out 20kg-30kg of food a year – 7kg of which is still in its wrapping. The combined national cost of this is up to €20bn.
Of the 7.1m tonnes of food wasted in France each year, 67% is binned by consumers, 15% by restaurants and 11% by shops. Each year 1.3bn tonnes of food are wasted worldwide.
The Fédération du Commerce et de la Distribution, which represents big supermarkets, criticised the plan. “The law is wrong in both target and intent, given the big stores represent only 5% of food waste but have these new obligations,” said Jacques Creyssel, head of the organisation. “They are already the pre-eminent food donors, with more than 4,500 stores having signed agreements with aid groups.” The logistics of the law must also not put an unfair burden on charities, with the unsold food given to them in a way that is ready to use, a parliamentary report has stipulated. It must not be up to charities to have to sift through the waste to set aside squashed fruit or food that had gone off. Supermarkets have said that charities must now also be properly equipped with fridges and trucks to be able to handle the food donations.
The French law goes further than the UK, where the government has a voluntary agreement with the grocery and retail sector to cut both food and packaging waste in the supply chain, but does not believe in mandatory targets.
A report earlier this year showed that in the UK, households threw away 7m tonnes of food in 2012, enough to fill London’s Wembley stadium nine times over. Avoidable household food waste in the UK is associated with 17m tones of CO2 emissions annually.


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