In a spectacular collision of worlds, the Comedor Comunitario, or Community Eatery, opened on March 9th, 2006, smack in the center of Puerto Madero’s ritzy downtown, and just across the dyke from an enormous Hilton Hotel. After some wandering through chic promenades with 50 pesos entrées (about US$17, five times the cost of the same plate in most other neighborhoods), I saw Argentine flags flapping from the top of a humble red brick stand, and a giant poster announcing the philosophy of the Comedor: "We are fighting for an Argentina where the dogs of the rich are no longer fed better than the children of the poor."
I introduce myself to one of the volunteer kitchen staff. Adriana Lenzi is a woman who has seen hard times, but her voice is kind, calm, and grounded. A member of the Movimiento Independiente de Jubilados y Desocupados (MIJD), the Independent Movement of the Retired and Unemployed, Adriana has donated her time to projects such as this for the last two and a half years. Now she stands behind the counter collecting fresh tortas fritas, fried empanadas, from a sizzling pan and hands them in napkins to the eager eaters on the other side. She simultaneously chats with a friend that has stopped by to say hello and a young boy who is also working behind the counter. There is a constant buzz of activity around the Comedor. In three short weeks since its opening it has become both a community gathering point and a spectacle. Adriana answers my questions within the rhythmic breaks and distractions of food service and socializing.
Four people volunteer here full time, from 12:30pm to 9pm with a break for siesta every day but Sunday, when most of Buenos Aires closes down. They feed approximately 300-350 people each day, generally around 100 of whom are children. When I ask how the Comedor managed to acquire this location, usually a staggering feat even for big shot developers, Adriana said the land and structure were donated by a wealthy businessman, but just for 4 months, at which time it will move to a permanent location about 15 blocks away. Some confused looking tourists approach the Comedor as we talk, lured by the smell of burning grease and the tidy cluster of folding chairs. We observe them reading the large posted sign, "Primarily and exclusively the food is for children, pregnant women, and the elderly until the government delivers nutritional help." They shuffle away.
There is strength in having the Comedor in this incongruous location, far from the sprawling slums, the villas miserias where many of the urban poor would appreciate a hot meal. Adriana says "to put the kitchen in the center of the community with money shows that there is also another reality. Wealthy people say that there is no other reality, but here it is." She points to a boy, maybe six years old, barefoot and wearing shredded sweatpants, leading his sister, half his age, up to the counter to ask for food. This is reality for thousands in Buenos Aires, the pains of hunger mingling with society’s denial of the problem. The Comedor is not only addressing the immediate problem of nutrition, but is trying to expand awareness in the larger community that this population exists and is not going away. This critical layering of direct action with popular education strategy is a model that has the potential to secure short term needs by initiating long term solutions.
The ‘cartoneros,’ ‘people of the cardboard boxes,’ can be found on every street, opening up the bags of garbage placed on the curbs for collection. Sorting through piles of garbage each day, cartoneros look for glass, plastic bottles, cardboard, computer paper and metal, which they then haul, in giant sacks precariously balanced on narrow gurneys to the sorting floors of scrap companies which buy and sell in bulk on the outskirts of this city. The cartoneros find their food among the refuse as well, mingling the labor for recyclables with their hunt for entire familial daily caloric intakes. This means babies and grandmothers as well as the young and able-bodied are sorting through garbage- my garbage and those of the other nearly 16 million people who inhabit this megalopolis, in order to eat.
Food, like shelter, clothing, medical care, and necessary social services, is considered a basic human right under Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948¹. This is also the philosophy of the Independent Movement of the Retired and Unemployed (MIJD), the organization responsible for the Comedor. The second-largest social network of justice workers in Argentina, MIJD operates 1208 community kitchens throughout the country, along with 35 schools, 64 primary care medical centers, 130 cooperatives, and 30 art and business workshops.
Raul Castells, longtime political activist who has been repeatedly imprisoned for his advocacy for social and economic justice, is the National Coordinator for MIJD and the charismatic face of the movement. He addresses the fact that government food assistance to the poor has been recently cut by 50,000 kilograms, and the Comedor has opened to try to fill that void². Politically sticky in any country, social services in Argentina will be a hot topic in the 2007 elections, and the MIJD newspaper suggests politicians want to distance themselves from working class issues to secure the middle class vote.
Since Argentina’s economy spiraled downward from the 2001 collapse from debt of international loans, debt interest, and poorly managed privatization projects under former president Carlos Menem, many community-based projects have come and gone. Initially the middle class was catapulted into action like never before, taking to the streets in raucous protest of vanishing class status, their anger fulminating at a series of mediocre presidents until the election of current President Nestor Kirchener, under whom the middle class has slowly stabilized.
Yet the working class continues to present a puzzle for the national economy which boasts an unemployment rate of only 11.1% (a low for the 21st century), but it reports 38.5% of the national population lives below the poverty line, in a country with a 97.1% literacy rate³. This discontent has translated into the creation of many worker cooperatives and action groups which have ebbed and flowed in potency over the last few years, but again are making a splash with projects like worker take-over of hotels, print shops, and laundry mats when the owners decide to stop paying salaries. The Comedor fits into this contemporary model of Argentine innovation. In a country commemorating 30 years since its last brutal dictatorship, the kitchen is meeting basic needs while trying to raise consciousness among the moneyed population, thus working for justice through direct action and community education simultaneously.
When I asked Adriana how she liked working at the Comedor, she just smiled and said, "está buena," "it’s good." It is good, a good project with a good message in a place where the impact will resonate. After all, it’s hard to sip your US$20 glass of wine conscious-free while seeing barefoot children hunting through the garbage for scraps.
Mneesha Gellman is a Rotary World Peace Fellow at the Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
²Dignidad, "Periódico del Movimiento Independiente de Jubilados y Desocupados. Año 12, Abril 2006, No. 121
Photo from lacalle-online.com