'Social fridges' open in Argentina as poverty rises
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – With hardship rising due to job cuts and inflation, Argentina has adopted a scheme from Europe's economic crisis: putting food in outdoor "social fridges" for the needy.
"I was sick of seeing how food got thrown away and then shortly afterwards people were foraging for it" in the trash, said Luis Pondal, a restaurant owner in the northern city of Tucuman.
"I said to myself, 'Why not give it to them with dignity?"
So-called social or solidarity fridges, where people leave food for those who need it, popped up in countries such as Spain and Germany in recent years during the recession in Europe.
Now the trend has spread to Argentina, one of Latin America's richer nations.
Pondal launched his fridge in February and says there are now at least 50 others around the country. In one case, a vet even set up a fridge for pets, he said.
Eating 'too expensive'
With its countless fields and livestock, Argentina is one of the world's biggest food producers.
But with inflation close to 40%, domestic prices are soaring and Argentines are finding their salary is not enough to buy the food they need.
"It is not just beggars going through the rubbish for a piece of bread or a few vegetables. You also see well-dressed people doing it – people who apparently have jobs," said Pondal.
"Eating has become too expensive."
Researchers at the country's Catholic University estimated in a study that 1.4 million people fell into poverty in the first 3 months after Conservative President Mauricio Macri took office on December 10.
It said 34.5% of the nation's 40 million people are living below the poverty line.
Food aid with dignity
The fridges typically stand on the sidewalk outside restaurants. One is plugged in and operating in the central Plaza de Mayo square in Buenos Aires, in front of the presidential palace.
"Take what you need," reads a sign.
Out in the open air during the day and shut up in a wooden cabin at night, the fridge is run by the charity Red Solidaria. Local restaurants provide ready-made meals to stash in it.
Every Friday, a traditional soup kitchen is set up alongside the fridge.
"The idea is for people not to look like they're begging," said Gabriel Shneider, coordinator of that project.
"They can come and take food without anyone handing it to them. It is a notion of solidarity that aims to make those in need feel more dignified."
'Zero poverty' goal
Macri promised to achieve "zero poverty" over the long-term when he took office.
He set out to reverse 12 years of leftist policies by his predecessors, vowing that his reforms will strengthen the economy in the long run.
Macri blames the high inflation on the policies of his leftist predecessor Cristina Kirchner and vowed to bring it down.
He has lifted foreign trade and currency restrictions, raised utility prices and cut public sector jobs.
Labor unions say 140,000 people have lost their jobs since Macri took office.
Land of plenty
Maria Belen Aragon said she ran several "social fridges" in the northern region of Salta.
"In Salta there are people who take the bus to get to the fridges and pick up food," she says. "There is a lot of need for them."
In Buenos Aires, where she has now opened a restaurant, she worries that such fridges would be shut down by health inspectors. So she is handing out food parcels instead.
Although Argentina set up a national food bank during an economic crisis in 2001, many charities say they cannot run food projects because of a lack of regulations to authorize them.
A so-called Good Samaritan Law to regulate food donations ground to a halt in the legislature in 2005.
In the central city of Cordoba, however, local lawmakers are proposing tax breaks and regulations for restaurants to set up social fridges.
"It was an idea based on common sense and also on guilt," Pondal said of the initiative.
"The feeling of outrage that in a country of such plenty, there can be such need." – Sonia Avalos, AFP/Rappler.com