Saturday, October 17, 2020

Queues in Santa Cruz to pick up a bag of food - how one charity is dealing with COVID-19

África Fuentes and volunteers. Image: AAVV Sociocultural García Escámez ONG

The NGO run by África Fuentes, in the García Escámez neighbourhood, of the Tenerife capital, attends to about 400 people who come in search of food every Friday.

It's half past ten in the morning. The queue goes around the Mercado de la Abejera. Hundreds of people wait patiently for the charity, over which presides, África Fuentes, in García Escámez, to begin the distribution of food that, every Friday, allows some 400 families to take some food home. The virus concerns them. They all wear a mask and try to keep their distance, often without success. But hunger worries them more. 

Eggs, lentils, tuna, rice… These are just some of the products in the boxes. Today there is no milk, no gofio. "It's what we need most now, because with a cup of milk and a little gofio you can make a meal," says África, who, at 85, says she is not afraid of COVID-19, "either the virus  kills me, or old age does ”. They begin the distribution. Worn shopping carts or simple grocery bags are used to collect food. Everyone waits patiently for their number that the volunteers have given them upon arrival depending on whether they have "papers" or not.

Juan Manuel Vega Fachi is the coordinator of the NGO. "We serve about 400 people a week, both those who are referred by social services and those who are not." They try to attend, at least, everyone with a referral from social services. “We're all interested in them coming with papers in order, because that means we can access more food”.

The coordinator details that they have tables where user data is collated. "If we see that they have been coming for several weeks without justification, we warn them that the next time we will not be able to help them." One of the volunteers voices it along the queue: "if you don't bring the appointment from the social worker, we can't give you more food." Many of those who are waiting look at each other without quite understanding what that means.

Fachi says that about 50 new people come every week. It is the effect of the pandemic. "We calculate that only we, every month, serve about 1,600 people, but if you multiply that figure by the members of each of the families we could be talking about more than 3,000."

To the question of what they need, the answer is obvious: food. “We ask large companies that if they have items that they are going to throw away, but that are still within date, then give it to us, we will distribute it. The food bank only supplies us with food on the first and third Thursday of each month, so the rest runs out quickly”. Thanks to companies like Jesumán, says Fachi, “we have dairy products such as yogurts or cheeses. But, for example, we also need baby food or milk for babies ”. Today they got a batch of cold meats and almost everyone can take home some ham.

As for the profile of those who attend, "they are people without work and many do not even have a house in which to cook some eggs," says the coordinator. “We have had to put some boxes in the surroundings - he continues - so that they can leave the food they do not want there, because we have detected that there are people who do not even have a house and if you give them something to cook, it is of no use to them ”.

África Fuentes adds that the majority of those who come without papers are Venezuelans or Cubans who have been in Tenerife for a few months, and have not yet been able to regularize their situation. "I can't tell those people to leave," she defends. "I do not give them food from the EU, because that is for those who have everything in order, but I give them food from the donations made to us." She adds that "I always have this fight with the administrations, and I always tell him the same thing, you don't need papers to eat."

The queue of those who do not yet have such derivation ratifies the words of Fuentes. Among them, a 68-year-old man, of Cuban origin and with Spanish nationality. He has been on the island for two years. “We are my wife and I. With the money that a niece from the United States sends me, and some work that my wife does, we are subsisting ”, he explains. He says he wants to go to live with his niece, "but everything is closed." Beside him, another man agrees with him.

Yet another woman (most of the queue are) is Spanish by birth and came from Venezuela a year ago. Her daughter studies thanks to a scholarship and she is looking for work. "My daughter has to train, to look for work." At 64, she is confident that she will get some work or that the minimum living income will improve the situation, but she also criticizes that the administrations are not responding as quickly as they should and points to the queue in front of her. She lives in El Rosario and gets to García Escámez as best she can.

That is precisely one of the requests of África Fuentes. "They are people without income, and if they have to buy a bus ticket on top of that, it is food that they take away, so we ask that they give more travel cards, which we do not always have. África says that the first thing she does in the morning is to see who to call and appreciates the response she receives, especially from la Caixa. She also thanks the City Council for all the help they give her.

It is almost noon now and the line continues. The volunteers themselves recognize that the Local Police will not take long to appear to remind them of compliance with anti-covid measures. África, at the head of the line, supervises the delivery of food and reminds the journalist not to forget to mention that they need donations "milk and gofio", she repeats.

Africa Fuentes has received a Gold Medal for Civil Merit and Favorite Daughter of Tenerife, for her work at the head of the García Escámez NGO. The first was received from the hands of the King and the second was delivered by the Cabildo. She keeps saying that she doesn't do anything special. "If it is in my power, no one would be left without eating." And that is one of the things that differentiates her, she attends equally to those who come with papers than to those who do not, because, as she repeats, "you don't need papers to eat."