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“We have a lot of commitment, a lot of love, but we also want to be recognised.”
Welcome to Impact, the newsletter that brings you untold stories about feminist movements from around the world. Today, Agustina Ordoqui reports from Buenos Aires, where the women responsible for feeding the hungry in their communities are demanding a fair wage.
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Every morning, Mariana Barberis and Paola Castro get up very early, thinking about how many people they will feed that day. They think about whether the food they have will be enough, or whether they will need to go out to buy more. Then they go to work. They are cocineras, or community cooks — Barberis manages seven community kitchens in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, while Castro runs a canteen in nearby La Matanza that serves 600 people a day. They are two of the more than 100,000 women who carry out a gargantuan mission: feeding 10 million people in Argentina.
“All day long, you are thinking about how to make the canteen work, » Barberis says.
There are 19 million people living below the poverty line in Argentina, and more than half of them receive some kind of food assistance. It is estimated that three in five children and adolescents in the country go to a soup kitchen daily to eat. According to a census by advocacy group La Poderosa, the country is home to at least 35,000 government-funded community canteens and soup kitchens where 135,000 people volunteer — 80% of them are women. While the government covers some of the kitchens’ food and operating costs, it does not pay all of the people who work there.
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Because their motivation is to ensure that their families and neighbours have at least one daily meal, these women’s contributions are often thought of as an act of love. But as is the case for so many women around the world, what is called love is actually unpaid work. Now, they are organising a political movement to demand recognition as real workers in the formal labour market.
Through La Poderosa, a campaign group focused on issues that affect working-class women, the cocineras have presented a bill to the Argentine parliament that, if passed, would provide them with a minimum wage, social security benefits, parental leave, sick leave, bonuses, paid holidays and pension contributions.
“We are people who never had the chance to study or to dream, who overcome our fears for the wellbeing of our community so that everyone, our family and ourselves can have access to a decent life,” Castro says. “But we don’t have medical insurance or a pension, and the kitchen doesn’t close, even when it rains or our neighbourhood is flooding. It’s not possible that feeding 600 people is not considered a job.”
Castro works at the Los Álamos de Pie canteen, where around 40 workers cook meals for the community, and also organise workshops on health, education, culture, and DIY. She also leads the nutrition branch at La Poderosa. Every day, she takes her son to school, cleans her house, works for Los Alamos, prepares lunch for her own family and then goes out to sell seaweed and Bach flower remedies to make extra money. Some of her colleagues sell second-hand clothes or exchange non-perishable food for fresh food or diapers.
The campaign leader, Claudia “La Negra” Albornoz, calls this the “triple shift”: “We work in our homes raising and caring for our families. We work in the market, usually in the informal sector. And we do community work in working-class neighbourhoods, where without us, the social situation would be much worse,” she says.
“We have a lot of commitment, a lot of love, but we also want to be recognised.”
In December, Argentina will celebrate 40 years of uninterrupted democracy following the end of the civil-military dictatorship. But this period has been marked by severe inequality, and the crisis has only deepened in the past three years. Inflation has hit the Argentine economy hard, with spiralling costs driving more people to the edge. The poverty rate reached 40% in the first half of 2023, according to the government’s statistics agency.
“Community kitchens have existed for four decades to solve the hunger emergency through collective action,” says Victoria Sordini, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, who works on the issue of food insecurity. “These are spaces where those who have the least help each other.”
The volunteers say they are doing the government’s job for them.
“We have been feeding democracy for 40 years,” Albornoz says. “What would happen if families did not have a daily meal? There would surely be a lot of conflict. Our work supports the base of the social pyramid.”
The canteens involve intensive work on behalf of the volunteers: Albornoz estimates that a community kitchen in Argentina can produce anywhere between 200 and 2,000 meals a day. Some workers are in the kitchen for up to ten hours at a time, she says. “Our colleagues get sick, suffer burns or have health problems because of the heavy pots they handle hurting their arms, their backs or their waists.”
Then there is the mental and financial load. “It is not only cooking, but also managing the supplies, which is difficult because sometimes the government does not send enough food or money, so we have to go out and look for donations. Sometimes, we even use our own money,” Albornoz says.
The bill to recognise community kitchen workers was announced on March 8, International Women’s Day, and was introduced to Congress on June 3, the anniversary of Ni Una Menos (Not One Less), the trailblazing Argentine movement against gender-based violence.
“We have spoken to the deputies so they understand why these women deserve a salary. We expect to have a law this year,” Albornoz says.
Advocates for the bill are hopeful that a change of government will not scupper its chances. The first round of the country’s presidential election was held this weekend, but the government will not formally change until December and only half of Congressional seats are up for renewal. The long-term prospects for women’s rights could be darker: the far-right, libertarian candidate, Javier Milei, has said he will shut down the Ministry for Women, Gender and Diversity and hold a referendum to end abortion rights if he wins the presidency.
The cost of a happy belly
At Pancita Feliz in Buenos Aires, Barberis manages the resources to ensure that 250 children have breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack. Fifteen people work at Pancita Feliz, which translates to “happy belly”. Her mother, Stella Soressi, and some neighbours decided to open the canteen in 1999. Barberis spent her childhood there before she joined as a cocinera.
The facility was set up for children, but after the Covid pandemic, entire families began to ask the kitchen for food assistance. Barberis also manages six other canteens in the area.
“Once you work in a community kitchen, you can never leave. Your heart stays there. The children have a very hard life, but here they have the chance to laugh, to have a good time, or even to celebrate their birthday,” she says.
“I have met so many people who have left this world without having their recognition, without having social or medical insurance, without having anything more than the love of the people in their neighbourhood,” Barberis says. “Without us, who would do this work?”
– Agustina Ordoqui is a freelance journalist in Argentina. She has contributed to the Impact newsletter since February 2021.
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Impact is a weekly newsletter of feminist journalism, dedicated to the rights of women and gender-diverse people worldwide.
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Impact is edited and often written by Megan Clement. It is translated by Anna Pujol-Mazzini. Agustina Ordoqui writes the monthly news wrap and our regular news updates on social media.
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