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ARGENTINA: ‘Drugs Are Killing the Youngsters We’re Feeding’

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Nov 2 2009 (IPS) - “You often ask yourself why feed them if some wretch is just going to come along and sell them that rubbish,” says Isabel Ruiz, who runs the Las Brujas soup kitchen in Moreno, a poor neighbourhood on the west side of the Argentine capital.

 Credit: Courtesy of Asociación Sud

Credit: Courtesy of Asociación Sud

“We’re going from bad to worse; nothing stops the drug dealers,” she tells IPS, frustrated like so many other administrators of community soup kitchens that feed children and adolescents every day, when they see how the marginalisation in which the youngsters’ families live marks their prospects for the future.

Las Brujas serves lunch to 250 children under the age of five every day, and many of them take home a dinner pail for the evening as well. “We also have families on a waiting list, and we tell them to show up after lunch, to see if there are any leftovers. But the problem is, there is not always food left over,” says Ruiz.

The fact that many children in the slums of Buenos Aires are fed as a result of donations and government subsidies is not necessarily a good thing, in her view, because their parents’ lack of employment and education puts them at risk of falling into drug abuse and crime.

In an effort to help fight these threats, Ruiz is setting up an urban garden, where teenagers and young people work. But none of these efforts are ever enough, she says. “When they turn five, the kids start going to school for half the day, and the rest of the time they’re in the street. We lose them. Nothing motivates them, and no one who’s really there for them, to guide them and give them support,” she says.

The situation is similar in another poor neighbourhood, San Fernando, to the north of the capital.

After 20 years as a community activist, Esther Bezek is tired. “The mothers are dirty, ignorant, lazy. They send their kids out to sell drugs or recycled cardboard, and hit them if they don’t bring money back,” she says bitterly.

She feeds 250 children Monday through Friday at the Corazones de América soup kitchen, which she first organised in her home before moving to a larger locale. “Three generations have already come through here; we were able to save many of them, but others get out of our hands, and fall into drugs and crime,” she says sadly.

Last year, Bezek, who is 59, had heart problems and was fitted with a pacemaker. She blames her health troubles on how thankless her job can be sometimes. “Not being able to save all of them causes you so much pain that in the end, it hurts your heart,” she says.

Most of the kids who come to her soup kitchen go on to use alcohol or drugs as adolescents, she says.

“The parents’ lack of work is a problem, but for me what is worse is how they have gotten used to being given everything,” says Bezek. “I worry more here about drugs than hunger, because we get food, and people are not malnourished, but drugs are killing the youngsters we’re feeding.”

Bezek says that during the 2002 economic meltdown in Argentina, social workers at the San Fernando Children’s Hospital sent malnourished children over to the soup kitchen, which is run with funds from a private foundation. “We might sometimes not have dessert, but we always have food,” she says.

According to official figures, the poverty rate in Argentina has dropped to 15 percent, and extreme poverty to four percent, down from a peak of over 50 and nearly 30 percent, respectively, in 2002.

But a report by the Catholic University of Argentina and other private institutions puts the proportion much higher. According to the Barómetro de la Deuda Social (Barometer of Social Debt), 27 percent of the population of 40 million is living in poverty – and nearly 41 percent of children under 18.

The Academic Centre for the Fight against Hunger, at the public University of Buenos Aires (UBA), estimates that there are some 1,800 soup kitchens and food pantries in Argentina.

The one run by Bezek is representative of the problems they all face. “There’s this family of little kids who come alone because their parents are in prison for drugs,” she says, with concern. “What can you do in the face of so much ignorance? I would like to get more involved in the question of education, but it’s not easy.”

In 2004, she led a campaign to get the local government department for youth affairs to grant them an empty lot in the municipality of Campana to set up a farm for recovering addicts.

“When everyone ignored us, we took groups of youngsters from different churches and occupied the empty lot, setting up a tent. After a while, different companies donated wood and other materials, and we built an educational farm for 10 adolescents, including a garden, a bread oven, pigs, chickens and rabbits,” she says, visibly moved by the memory.

A group of volunteers worked with the recovering young drug addicts who lived on the farm. But after a year, five of them went back to a life of crime, and one was killed by the police. The farm was bulldozed under, everyone was evicted, and legal charges were brought against Bezek for “inciting crime” and “harbouring criminals.”

“After a while, they closed the case, but these are the things that make you sick, and make you want to just throw in the towel,” she says.

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