Hungry neighbors cook together as virus roils Latin America

LIMA, Peru (AP) - Clara Arango wakes up at 4 a.m. daily and checks the ingredients for breakfast.
Eighteen pounds of oats, 13 pounds of sugar and one pound of cinnamon sticks, all done. An hour later, 43-year-old Arango uses a shovel to stir 30 gallons of sweet oatmeal in a stainless steel pot over a wood waste fire next to a community center made of ash blocks in the hills overlooking Peru's capital.
By 9 a.m., more than 150 neighbors from Arango in New Hope each paid 14 cents for a plastic bowl of oatmeal from the "Community Pot", a phenomenon that has become ubiquitous in Peru in recent months as coronavirus quarantines and downtime have disappeared are millions of poor people who have no way to support their families.
Soup kitchens and community pots, often run with the help of the Catholic Church and private charities, have become a symbol of the enigma facing a region where most people work outside the formal economy.
Economic downtimes have forced poor Peruvians, Argentinians and tens of millions of others to resort to community-based efforts that have not been seen in large numbers since crises such as the civil war in Peru in the 1990s or the financial crash in Argentina two decades ago.
With no unemployment benefits or the ability to work from home, an inexpensive plastic bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, a lentil stew or pasta in tomato sauce for lunch, and scraps of food aren't enough to stop poor Latin Americans from leaving their homes every day for a living earning as construction workers, street vendors, or other types of day laborers.
The inability to keep people at home is a key factor in the spread of the coronavirus across the continent, where new cases and deaths are growing unchecked because an unbent infection curve pushes the intensive care unit to its limits.
Despite some of the strictest anti-virus measures in the region, Peru has diagnosed 237,000 coronavirus cases and 7,000 deaths, the highest number of cases per capita in the region and the second highest number of deaths per capita.
At the same time, Peru is facing a 12% drop in gross domestic product this year, one of the worst recessions in the hemisphere, according to the World Bank.
"I hardly have anything to eat at home," said Arango. "I have a community pot here and I can pool my resources with my neighbors and we can support and work together."
As a single mother of two, she lost her job as a caretaker when her employer closed his mall in Lima's richest area because of the anti-virus drug shutdown that started on March 16.
Government figures show that by April, more than 2.3 million other Lima's residents have lost their jobs, with a workforce of around 16 million across the country. The number is expected to rise again when the May numbers are released.
In Peru, thousands of community pots are steaming breakfast and lunch in areas that have not been reached with Shining Path Maoist guerrillas since the inflation rate of 7,000% in 1990 in the middle of the civil war.
According to a survey conducted by the private, impartial Peruvian Studies Institute in May, more than a third of Peru's 32 million people had to cook in some form in the community for lack of money.
On a recent morning, a short tour by Associated Press journalists found more than 15 groups of neighbors cooking food within a mile of Arango's pot.
At one, Estéfany Aquiño (11) waited to help her mother raise her 2-month-old sister after a caesarean section, which the woman was unable to leave her home to look for food.
Estéfany said the community pot was their only defense against hunger, which had become an integral part of life.
"Your stomach starts to hurt, grumble and then talk to you," said the girl.
Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra says the pandemic has exposed the weakness of the Peruvian system, which has outperformed Latin America's economic growth for decades but has one of the weakest social security networks in the region.
"We are far from being an example of efficiency as a state," he said on Monday. "We have so many mistakes, so many problems."
But Peru is far from the only country that struggles with the virus and hunger.
In Buenos Aires, the church and local football clubs have organized community pots in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the capital, and volunteers say their customers are becoming increasingly desperate as virus-related shutdowns progress.
"We used to put food for three in a plastic container," said volunteer Emanuel Basile when he was working in the hard-hit neighborhood 1-11-14. "Now they want us to eat in Essen for five."
Sonia Pérez in Guatemala City, Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires and Michael Weissenstein in Havana contributed to this.

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