Dice the garlic, cut the peppers, add a touch of love. This is the Venezuelan seasoning used by “Patriotic Cooks”, women that spend some of their workdays in restaurants that feed vulnerable communities in the country.
Called Food Houses, these restaurants are part of a program created in 2005, during former president Hugo Chávez’s administration. Over the last decade, the country has been able to reduce malnutrition rates from 13,5% to 2,5%.
Till 2019, 3.117 of these food halls were opened. The goal is to reach 6,000 units, joining forces with other projects that will ensure these pantries are self sustaining, by producing their own food for example.
In the La Pastora shanty town, located in the Altos de Lídice region of Caracas, the food hall has been opened for a year, inside the neighborhood’s Socialist Commune leader, Olga Valecillos’ kitchen.
“When I saw that someone had backtracked on offering their house, I said they could use mine, under the condition that my sister could work here. It doesn’t get in my way at all, as you can see, we work in unison”, Valecillos tells us.
Around 200 people are given lunch Monday through Friday, prepared by the hands of 7 cooks from the area. Between the hours of 9am to 12pm, members of the community can simply knock on Betty’s door and get their meal.
Priority is given to children and teenagers with nutritional problems, besides them the elderly and people with physical disabilities or in conditions of social vulnerability.
Throughout the country, around 1,7 million Venezuelans remain working in essential services amid the pandemic. The State has committed to pay the salaries of public employees, as well as those from small and medium sized businesses until the end of 2020.
However, according to official data, in 2016, 5.189 million Venezuelans were already employed in the informal sector, and 1.035 million of them were unemployed, implying that a large parcel of the working class has no fixed monthly income.
Food is provided to the pantries every 15 days by the State. To feed 200 people, 80 food baskets containing 11 kilos of food each are needed per month. Representatives of the Strategic Foundation Food Program (Fundaproal) visit the food halls every two weeks to check if meals are being distributed to those in need. Cooks also receive food baskets and financial help to the tune of half the country’s minimum wage.
“The produce arrives every 15 days: rice, pasta, olive oil, sometimes milk, sometimes sugar, chicken and pork. Depending on what Fundaproal has available, they will send it to us”, explains Valecillos.
That being said, due to the economic blockade and crisis, the variety of products available is ever smaller. In Venezuela, “sorting it out” is the main word used to describe the magic these women perform daily in their homes, to ensure that nothing is ever missing for their families.
Just like in their homes, the cooks of Altos de Lídice “sort it out” when it comes to providing food to their neighbors.
“For sure, the Commune helps us with the produce they harvest. They always send us things to the Food Halls. In December for example, they did a food drive within the community to supply our kitchen”, explains Valecillos.
Lack of water and the scarcity of fuel supplies are other daily hindrances. However, they are no reason to fret. Amid laughter, the cooks supply lunches to all. “One way or another, we end up sorting it out. We help each other”, affirms Patriotic Cook Dorka Sigala.
To ensure the provision of the necessary food supplies and perform oversight, a supervisor from Fundaproal visits the food halls every 15 days. The beneficiaries must also be registered on the Patriotic Platform – an online Statewide database, which Venezuelans use to access social programs. Food hall managers keep track of every child and adult served via their own cell phones.
The Bolivarian government has around 20 million of its citizens registered on the platform, which they may access from a computer or mobile device.
Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, people aren’t able to eat inside the Food Halls. They have also started retrieving their meals at different times, starting at 9am, in order to avoid large gatherings. All must wear protective masks.
Every Friday, public health field agents from the municipality disinfect the kitchens.
Olga Valecillos, who coordinates the efforts in the Lídice area and is the sister of fellow cook Betty, also assures us that if any of her colleagues have symptoms of the disease, they must stay at home, adding that the cooks are a priority when it comes to mass testing.
Venezuela is currently at the height of the pandemic, with hot spots having shifted from the border states to the capital Caracas. 27.938 covid-19 cases and 238 deaths have been registered in the country.
“We need to keep moving forward despite this pandemic, because this will pass, as other things have passed. Did this situation hit us hard? Yes, that is true, Venezuelans aren’t used to this. But this too shall pass and we will one day laugh and make jokes about it”, says Betty Valecillos.
Edited by: Rodrigo Chagas