Caritas Argentina, government renew agreement on soup kitchens

Argentine President Javier Milei is pictured during a visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, Feb. 7, 2024. Argentina's bishops Feb. 5 expressed concern over rampant hunger amid government cuts to parish soup kitchens, warning Milei that "food cannot be a variable in economic adjustments." (OSV News photo/Ammar Awad, Reuters)

(OSV News) ─ Caritas Argentina has renewed an agreement with the federal government to provide snacks at church-operated soup kitchens. The move came amid church concern over rampant hunger in the country.

Caritas Argentina announced the renewal Feb. 7 in a short statement on X, formerly Twitter, which said, "(Caritas) will continue working together with those suffering from the food crisis within the framework of the serious social situation that is being experienced." The government also signed a similar agreement with a group of evangelical churches, too, the Clarin newspaper reported.

Argentina's bishops previously expressed concern over possible government cuts to parish soup kitchens, warning libertarian President Javier Milei that "food cannot be a variable in economic adjustments."

"In our country no one should go hungry as it's the blessed land of bread," said the bishops' statement, issued Feb. 5 and signed by four bishops who lead the conference. "Today, however, hundreds of thousands of families are finding it difficult to feed themselves well."

The statement marked the Argentine bishops' conference's first statement of 2024, but it comes as Milei prepares for a Feb. 11 meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

It also marked a more critical stance toward Milei, whose political rise was met with cautious comments -- even as he accused fellow Argentine Pope Francis of "preaching communism."

But church observers say the statement followed a decision by the federal government to revamp the process for purchasing food and supplying soup kitchens.

The revised process "decentralizes" the process, according to the Human Capital Ministry, the newspaper La Nacion reported.

Observers say the government aims to fulfill a Milei campaign promise by eliminating intermediaries and middlemen, leading to shortages at soup kitchens -- including places operated by the Catholic Church -- as the process unfolds.

The director of a Catholic organization, speaking anonymously, said the government had audited the organization, but welcomed the scrutiny.

"They want to remove the middlemen, who are basically the ones keeping a lot of money which belongs to the poor," the director said. "The ministry is going to visit all these places so that help arrives directly."

The bishops' conference statement spoke of the soup kitchen cuts, saying, "All care spaces that provide food, all community kitchens, parish kitchens, evangelical churches, and popular movements must receive help without delay. No sector of those that are acting today, no institution or church, could do it alone. The complexity of the crisis is indicating this."

Observers say the cuts have struck a chord with some in the bishops' conference as the church has a long history of serving the poor and striving to find social peace in times of economic and political crisis.

"There's a lot of displeasure among the bishops of the cuts to the soup kitchens," Mariano De Vedia, religion writer at La Nación, told OSV News. "There's a distancing" between the bishops and Milei, he added.

Milei inherited an economic turbulence upon taking office Dec. 10. But he promised to slash what he considered a bloated state overseen by a corrupt political class he branded "The Caste."

He has pushed an omnibus bill in congress, which grants the president broad decree powers, helps privatize state-owned industries and pushes economic reforms. But the bill became bogged down in congress, which sent it back to committee Feb. 7.

Poverty afflicted 44.7% of the population in December, according to the Social Debt Observatory at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, while inflation topped 200% in 2023.

"Inflation over the years has increased daily and hits the price of food hard. It's clearly felt in the working middle class, retirees and those not seeing their salaries grow," the bishops said. "Faced with this scenario of sacrificed work and low income, families deprive themselves of many things."

Church soup kitchens have expanded in times of crisis, serving vulnerable populations and the unemployed. The bishops mentioned the COVID pandemic, which "taught us the value of organized community response: united to heal, care and share was the slogan of that time."

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David Agren writes for OSV News from Mexico City.


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