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Uruguay’s “people’s pots” feed the hungry amid the pandemic

This is Uruguay’s version of soup kitchen during the pandemic. Here they call it the “people’s sweat”. Nobody gets paid for their work. Most of the food is donated. And the house where these volunteers prepared for the holiday is occupied. On this particular day they cooked pork; but the menu varies depending on what ingredients you can get in a given day. Their mission is simple: to feed those who have fallen in difficult times during the Covid-19 pandemic, although others are welcome.

As in many other countries around the world, the pandemic has pushed many Uruguayans who were previously in the lower middle class into poverty. In Uruguay, where the death toll is among the highest in the world, economic activity fell by 6% in 2020 compared to the previous year. That same year, during the country̵
7;s first wave of Covid-19 between March and July, a quarter of the country’s privately employed applied for unemployment benefits, according to the International Labor Organization.

Andrea Dorta is one of the volunteers working to feed the hungry, which she has been working on for almost a year. Ever since she started helping, she has seen the queue of people looking for food grow longer and vowed to continue helping while she still needs to feed the hungry.

“We are in a food crisis, one of the biggest we have had in Uruguay’s history,” Dorta said. He says he understands the people he serves very well because he was in their place recently. The single mother of a three-year-old girl says she soon lost her job in the pandemic and was left with little more than the equivalent of $ 20. A diaper bag in Uruguay costs 13.

“It wasn’t just diapers. I had to pay the bills and stuff, and the first aid I got came from a place like this,” Dorta said.

Andrea Dorta

Soup culture

The sweat of the people in Palermo is not the only one. According to a recent study by the Universidad de la República, Uruguay’s oldest and largest public university, there are nearly 700 of these kitchens in the country, which at one time cater for as many as 55,000 people. According to the study, more than 60 percent of such soup kitchens have not received any government funding in the past year and depend on donations and the work of volunteers.

Dorta says they depend on Roberto, a common name they use to denote neighbors or caring people who show up unexpectedly to donate food. They always seem to appear just when they are needed, with a sack of potatoes, a bag of onions, dozens of baguettes or some meat.

On this particular afternoon, the volunteers prepared gizo, fried pork with a side of carrots and potatoes and a piece of baguette. Dorta says they try to pack as many calories as possible at each meal because they know it may be the only thing people waiting in line can get today. They call the beneficiaries of their kindness “clients” or clients and strive to provide them with a dignified attitude, something that may not happen anywhere else.

“We have a lot of homeless people and we need to increase calorie intake. Some shelters have been forced to close,” Dorta said.

And then there are those like Homero Mederos. Not long ago, an unemployed resident of the south was one of those waiting outside for hot food. When CNN visited the soup, he was in charge of slicing the bread, which he carefully placed in large baskets.

Homer Mederos

“We are here because there are no jobs,” Mederos said, choking. He rides his bike to the soup every afternoon from Parc del Plata, a coastal town in the province of Canelones, about 50 km from the Palermo district of Montevideo.

Why travel so far? That’s the only way he’s and his family eat daily so far, he says. Mederos says that after volunteering for the soup, he doesn’t go home until after midnight.

As dinner time approached, the line outside began to lengthen. Esteban Corales, who has been in charge of organizing the pots of these particular people for months, says they are constantly reminded of the great need for the work they do. “Every day there are folk pots, hundreds of people appear, rain or shine, and we have to prepare hundreds of dishes. This is something we have not seen before the pandemic,” Corrales said.

Uruguay is in an unusual situation. The World Bank says it “stands out in Latin America” ​​with its high per capita income and low level of inequality and poverty. At the beginning of the pandemic, she appeared to have been spared the virus.

But after a jump in infections appeared at the end of the year, everything changed. At the time of writing, Uruguay is in the hands of a second wave, with more than 200,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in that country of 3.5 million.

The director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Carissa Etienne, said last week during a virtual press conference that one in four deaths worldwide from the virus occurred in America. Uruguay, along with Peru, Bolivia and Argentina, are seeing growing infections, Etienne said.

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