- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 4, 2002

BUENOS AIRES Claudia Franco surveys the rusted shacks and muddy, potholed streets of Villa 24, a shantytown in the heart of Buenos Aires, and glances at the barefoot children and the lined, worn faces of the elderly gathered around her.
A year ago, Mrs. Franco started cooking for some hungry children from the neighborhood. Now she provides two meals a day for 65 of its dirt-poor residents.
"It feels good to help, good to see a little child coming with a plate for something to eat," says Mrs. Franco, 30, a passionate, determined mother of seven. "I don't have a penny to spend. I live by barter, but it's gratifying to help."
Mrs. Franco is just one of the many thousands who have felt compelled to act as Argentina's four-year recession bites ever deeper. Since the country's crisis hit new lows in December, volunteers from all levels of society have flocked to offer their skills, their food or their clothes to anyone in need.
"We've seen an explosion of solidarity in recent months," says Silvia Baez, a volunteer who administers a network of soup kitchens in several of the capital's slums. "There's a lot of empathy for the poor because the inequality in Argentina is now extremely visible. No one is safe from it anymore, not even the rich."
The seemingly endless recession has sent the jobless rate soaring to more than 20 percent. Each month, 60,000 lose their jobs, and most have little hope of finding new work.
The government says poverty levels have surged from 15 percent to 45 percent of the population in less than a decade. Officials say that each day an additional 8,000 slip below the official poverty line.
The country's 23 provincial governments operate a basic welfare safety net, but charity organizers say it is woefully inadequate in coping with the scale of Argentina's crisis.
Charity groups estimate that 400 soup kitchens in Buenos Aires and hundreds more in other cities have sprung up in the past several months.
Most start spontaneously and remain independent.
"The typical pattern is that a natural leader emerges, usually a woman, who simply decides to prepare food for those around her," Mrs. Baez says.
"Sometimes they can get resources from the local authorities, but mostly they plead, petition, or ask anyone who might be able to help."
Across the country, people are donating food and clothing in unprecedented quantities. Stores, from neighborhood grocery shops to national supermarket chains, regularly donate food, both on a large scale through charitable networks and to individuals in immediate need.
Many companies have also tried to expand outreach and donor programs, despite an abrupt downturn in profits.
Newspapers and television stations, too, have joined in, helping charities to reach a wider audience by offering free space or airtime for appeals or charitable success stories.
Other Argentines have flocked to volunteer for the Solidarity Network, whose assistance ranges from arranging the donation of a single wheelchair to providing a three-month supply of insulin for as many as 1,000 diabetics.
"A few years ago, most Argentines thought 'charity' meant sending money to Africa," says Juan Carr, who set up the group seven years ago to put the needy in touch with potential donors. "Now they see it means looking out for the family next door."
Despite such help, real hunger has appeared for the first time in a country that traditionally prides itself on being a prosperous and very European outpost in South America.
"It's not that Argentina has run out of food," says Juana Cevallos, an adviser to the Catholic charity Caritas Argentina. "The problem is that many people have no access to it. They simply cannot afford to buy enough to keep their families alive and healthy."
Charity workers say they cannot hope to protect all of the country's poorest. "We can find food sufficient for 100 soup kitchens," Mr. Carr says.
"But if we think of the whole country, how are we ever going to cope with 10,000 such eating places?"

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