Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico (Community Kitchens of Puerto Rico) has spent the last few months feeding communities suffering from hunger on the Island while also protesting the government’s lack of action to address the situation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve managed to distribute groceries to families in need across the Island and organize protests that have helped their movement garner attention.
Since 2013, they’ve been providing accessible food to people using a system of donations and contributions that mirrors the kind of practice they strive to see in society. As quarantining measures were beginning to be established on the Island, they halted their traditional operations as a community kitchen in order to pivot to their latest initiative Compras solidarias (groceries for solidarity) in which they’ve distributed more than $15,000 worth of groceries to over 2,000 families in the last couple of weeks.
Infection and unemployment rates went up in Puerto Rico, federal aid packages were not being disbursed on time, and only 150 out of the 780 school cafeterias were up and running to provide food for communities despite recent judicial orders in favor of groups advocating to have them opened. As conditions of the pandemic continued to take shape and the dire need for food increased, they decided to shift their efforts from serving plates of food to delivering groceries.
“We were seeing that, in other countries, many social movements were successfully engaging in a similar method of grocery delivery within vulnerable communities, and meal distribution proved to be a hazard,” said Joshua García Aponte, a member of Comedores Sociales. “We don’t have the resources to launch a big food distribution system like the government is able to.”
Meanwhile, they’ve been taking on the challenge of protesting on behalf of communities struggling to feed themselves and their families. Hunger and food insecurity in Puerto Rico have been palpable among the people they’ve helped and interacted with even before the pandemic. According to García Aponte, they used to serve food to around 60-80 people each day before Hurricane Maria. After the hurricane, that number went up to over 130. Whether it’s due to natural disasters, economic inflations, austerity measures, or other factors affecting the Island, hunger insecurity among communities continues to become increasingly evident as more folks participate and seek out their services.
Before Hurricanes Irma and Maria, a study from 2015 on Puerto Rico’s hunger situation revealed that over 33 percent of the population suffers from hunger. The rate of food insecurity among children was almost triple the average of the rest of the United States. After these atmospheric events, it’s estimated this number had increased to around 38.3 percent. Since the pandemic, Comedores Sociales suspects that that number is much higher.
“People eat less or don’t eat so that food can last them until the end of the month. We know this happens because people call us to ask for these groceries and have told us about their situations. Even with welfare, food runs out quickly since the entire family is home all the time.”
Over the last year, there’s been more than one instance where storage units filled to the brim with food and supplies were found expired after months of being stored. As a result of this and the inefficient protocols in place, Comedores Sociales continues to denounce these transgressions and mobilize groups in order to call attention to these issues. One of the most prominent movements even led to the unjust arrest of founder Giovanni Roberto under allegations that the group was violating social distancing measures.
Starting as a makeshift soup kitchen run by community organizers, they provide food in exchange for either a few hours of labor, food contributions, or a monetary donation. This structural model the organization uses is what helps them keep their project alive and live up to their mission of sustainability. It allows for more people and material to continue supporting their initiatives while breaking away from the misconception that their work is charity.
“We emphasize that we don’t do charity but rather solidarity,” García Aponte explained. “Charity is a top-down system that doesn’t alter any power dynamics, and certainly doesn’t alter the lives of impoverished people that will certainly keep being impoverished. Solidarity, however, intends to solve the root of the problem through interpersonal interactions. As a result, our model allows us to involve more people that can help us solve the problem we want to eradicate, which is hunger.”
They’re actively raising funds by selling merchandise and hosting virtual concerts in order to continue doing this work and supporting families across Puerto Rico.