The white flags that waved outside homes across Peru in response to the COVID-19 lockdown measure flew for months. Poor families put them up as a cry for help: a symbol that they had no more food.
What started in the slums of Lima spread to hundreds of communities around the country.
But in the village of Nueva Ciudad Inca, in Peru’s Andes mountains, this sign of surrender became a symbol of resilience. Seeing numerous white flags made from bags and broomsticks hoisted around their community, six women organized a soup kitchen to help their fellow residents. They called it Olla Solidaria, or the Solidarity Pot.
“We made Turkish rice but without meat or chicken since we didn’t have any,” recalls 13-year-old Marco of their opening day last May. Marco, whose mother is one of the founders, tells me proudly that he helped by knocking on doors to tell townspeople they could get a whole meal for just one Peruvian sol (20 U.S. cents).
On a typical day during the lockdown, the volunteers—mostly women—manage to feed more than 150 children and 100 adults. Today they run the soup kitchen out of a neighbor’s house. On the wall hangs a paper showing volunteer shifts and the week’s menu: Today, pumpkin stew; tomorrow, cheese salad. A local company donated utensils and huge cooking pots. The women cook outside with wood because they cannot afford the gas needed to cook indoors. When the food is ready, they take the pots inside to serve neighbors who have been queuing since noon.
Laura in the soup-kitchen waiting for the portion of the day.
The small community of Nueva Ciudad Inca reflects the reality affecting children and families across Latin America. An estimated 28 million people in the region are living in extreme poverty due in part to the worsening economy brought on by COVID-19 measures, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). Children are the worst affected with their education, health and nutrition at risk.
The lockdown earlier this year left more than a third of Peruvians without food, and many families are still struggling to recover. Similar to Peru’s economic crisis and hyperinflation in the 1980s, soup kitchens have emerged as a response as individuals organize themselves to eat in groups and stretch food resources.
The Solidarity Pot
While I photograph the soup kitchen cooks, 9-year-old Laura looks at my camera with curiosity. She tells me that her mother takes weekly shifts at the soup kitchen with other women to cook and do grocery shopping. "Although I see her less those days, I am proud that she helps other children like me not to go hungry," says Laura as she carries a container of food for herself, her mother and her little brother.
Mónica Bustos, a social worker for SOS Children's Villages Peru, says the daily number of servings vary and that it has dropped as more families recover. But when looking at the daily queues, it is obvious the need for help persists. Children depend most on the soup kitchen, coming here for a meal while their parents are out working or looking for work.
For many kids like Marco and Laura, this will be their only meal of the day, replacing the one they typically would get in school. Unfortunately, the soup kitchen board can only afford to provide one daily meal.
Choosing between education and food
Many families moved to Nueva Ciudad Inca from the nearby city of Cusco to fulfill their dream of having a home of their own. But the green mountains and peaceful environment have been overshadowed by the lack of promised basic services—namely electricity and water—that local officials have yet to deliver.
Marco visits his mother and two younger siblings in Nueva Ciudad Inca on weekends. Since schools are still closed for in-person learning, he lives with a relative in Cusco so that he can follow online classes. Without electricity or cell phone service, he had to go up to a bodega which is the only place in town with electricity. He paid two soles (40 cents) to charge his phone and then goes up on a hill that has service to receive his homework via Whatsapp.
Laura does not have the same option. After proudly showing me her two puppies in her backyard and telling me that she dreams of becoming a veterinarian, she guides me back to the soup kitchen. She was with me all day, so I asked her how she keeps up with her schoolwork. She says her father takes the only cell phone to work Monday through Friday, so she can only do her homework on Sundays. "Sometimes my aunt lends me her phone, but I'm ashamed to ask for it too much."
Families often must choose between eating or buying credit for a cell phone so that their children can follow their online classes. For girls like Laura, it is the only way she can continue her studies.
The school year ends in December and they will have two months of summer vacation. But compared to other years, Marco and Laura look forward to going back to the classrooms at the beginning of March. Marco because he wants to go back to live with his siblings and his mother; Laura because she misses learning.
“In school I was getting smarter. I want to go back,” Laura says.
A plate of food for every child
Today the women who run the soup kitchen are seeking to turn it into a community kitchen, for which they would receive a monthly budget from local authorities to guarantee it could continue. But they find it is a very bureaucratic application. Amidst a political crisis, thousands of soup kitchens in Peru await a long overdue legislation to be passed by Congress to speed up this process as a response to the emergency.
Despite this bleak reality and a long wait for the government’s support, a small community like Nueva Ciudad Inca is taking action and facing crisis with solidarity and resilience.
Women and children line up outside the soup kitchen holding empty bottles and containers to bring food back home, but everyone finds a silver lining. They appreciate that they know each other better now—that they know the names of their neighbors and that they can support each other. At least now, they all agree, every child has something to eat.
As a response to the COVID-19 social and economic crisis, SOS Children's Villages Peru supports 18 soup kitchens and 17 community kitchens nationwide with a monthly budget of 700 soles (around 243 U.S. dollars) to buy non-perishable food. In addition, there is constant communication and workshops to develop organization and leadership skills in the soup kitchens’ board. Learn more about our work in Peru.
*Names changed to protect privacy