People’s pots feed the hungry left by covid in Uruguay

(CNN) — On a recent afternoon in Montevideo, a small army of volunteers was gathering in the backyard of a house in Palermo, a neighborhood on the southern side of the Uruguayan capital. Some were peeling and cutting carrots; others were cutting onions and a third group was preparing the pork loins. There was another group that brought spices, salt, cooking oil and pots… many pots. There was no time to lose. His mission was to prepare hundreds of hot meals and have them ready by dinner time.

This is Uruguay’s version of a soup kitchen during the pandemic. Here they call it the «popular pot». Nobody is paid for their work. Most of the food is donated. And the house where these volunteers prepared dinner is on loan. On this particular day they were cooking pork, but the menu varies depending on what ingredients they can get on a given day. Its mission is simple: feed those who have been through difficult times during the covid-19 pandemic, although others are also welcome.

As in many other countries in the world, the pandemic has pushed many Uruguayans who previously belonged to the lower middle class into poverty. In Uruguay, where the mortality rate Due to covid-19 it is among the highest in the world, economic activity fell by 6% in 2020 compared to the previous year. That year, during the first wave of covid-19 in the country –between March and July–, a quarter of private employees in Uruguay applied for unemployment benefits, according the International Labor Organization.

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Andrea Dorta is one of the volunteers working to feed the hungry, something she has been doing for almost a year. Since he began helping, he has seen the line of people looking for food grow and has vowed to keep helping while there is still a need to feed the hungry.

Andrea Dorta.

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

“It wasn’t just diapers. I also had to pay the bills and other things and the first help I received came from a place like this, “recalls Dorta.

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The popular pot in Palermo is not the only one. According to a recent study by the University of the Republic – Uruguay’s oldest and largest public university – there are almost 700 of these soup kitchens throughout the country, which at some point feed 55,000 people. According to him studyMore than 60 percent of those soup kitchens did not get any state funding in the past year and relied on donations and the work of volunteers.

Dorta says they depend on “Roberto,” a general name they use to refer to neighbors or loving people who show up unexpectedly to donate food. They always seem to show up precisely when needed, with a sack of potatoes, a bag of onions, dozens of baguettes or some kind of meat.

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On this particular afternoon, the volunteers were preparing “stew”, fried pork with a side of carrots and potatoes and a piece of baguette. Dorta says they try to pack the most calories into each meal because they know this may be the only one that people waiting in line can get today. They call the beneficiaries of their kindness “clients” and go out of their way to treat them with dignity, something they may not get anywhere else.

Homer Mederos.

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

And then there are people like Homero Mederos. Not long ago, the unemployed South Side resident was one of those waiting outside for a hot meal. When CNN visited the soup kitchen, he was in charge of cutting the bread that he was carefully putting into large baskets.

“We are here because there is no work,” Mederos said, choking. Every afternoon he bicycles to the soup kitchen from Parque del Plata, a coastal city in the province of Canelones, located about 50 kilometers from the Palermo neighborhood of Montevideo.

Why travel so far? It’s the only way, for now, that he and his family can eat every day, he says. Mederos says that after volunteering at the soup kitchen, he doesn’t come home until after midnight.

As dinner time approached, the line outside began to lengthen. Esteban Corrales, who has been in charge of organizing the pot for these particular people for months, says they are constantly reminded of their great need for the work they do. “Every day there is a popular pot, hundreds of people come, rain or shine, and we have to cook hundreds of meals. It’s something we didn’t see before the pandemic, “said Corrales.

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Uruguay is in an unusual situation. The World Bank says it “stands out in Latin America” ​​for its high per capita income and low levels of inequality and poverty. At the beginning of the pandemic, it seemed that the virus had saved him.

But after it arose an increase in infections after the end of the year festivities, everything changed. As of this writing, Uruguay is in the grip of a second wave, with more than 200,000 confirmed cases of covid-19 in this country of 3.5 million inhabitants.

The director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Carissa Etienne, said last week – during a virtual press conference – that one of every four deaths in the world from the virus occurred in America. Uruguay, along with Peru, Bolivia and Argentina were experiencing an increase in infections, Etienne said.

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