Queuing for food handouts: How the pandemic has left thousands more going hungry in Spain

A year after the pandemic hit Spain, the need for food handouts has soared in the country, especially by workers in the sectors hit hardest by the economic crisis that followed.

Queuing for food handouts: How the pandemic has left thousands more going hungry in Spain
Reina Chambi, 39, queues to receive food aid outside San Ramon Nonato parish in Madrid. Photos: Oscar del Pozo/AFP

Although her face is covered by a black mask, Rita Carrasco still wears bright red lipstick. But her easy smile faltered when she had to join Madrid’s “hunger lines” for food aid.

“It was a hard moment. I felt shame,” says the 41-year-old Mexican, who lost her job as a theatre teacher when Spain’s tight lockdown began in March 2020.

Since then, she has not been able to find work and has used up all her savings.

Over the past year, the demand for food packages has soared in Spain, especially among those employed in sectors worst-hit by the resulting economic crisis.

Last year, the Catholic charity Caritas said it helped half a million people who had never before asked for food packages.

Since December, Carrasco (pictured above) has been going every Friday to a soup kitchen in Carabanchel, a working-class neighbourhood in southern Madrid, to collect a box of groceries.

She also helps distribute food as a volunteer.

“Giving and receiving changes your perspective,” she says.

Beans and fruit

Wearing yellow vests, the volunteers hand out fruit, cereal and beans at a church building to those lining up in a narrow street outside.

The neighbourhood has a high immigrant population and many in the queue are Latin American women.

People used to be able to eat a hot meal onsite, but virus restrictions now mean they can only serve food to take away.

It is one of four soup kitchens opened last spring by the Alvaro del Portillo charity.

Before the pandemic, there was only one, which served around 900 people.

Since then the number of people using the soup kitchens has soared to around 2,000.

“As the months have gone by, we’ve noticed things easing,” says Susana Hortigosa, who runs the charity.

“Although the level of demand is still higher than before the pandemic, it has dropped slightly because people have started getting their furlough payouts or have found a few hours of work” as the economy has picked up, although most still need help, she says.

The leftwing coalition government of Pedro Sanchez has unblocked €40 billion ($48 billion) since the start of the crisis to fund the furlough scheme.

But with the administration overrun with claims, it has often taken months for the payouts to materialise.

‘A great help’

Such was the case with Reina Chambi (pictured below), a 39-year-old carer for the elderly whose husband was employed at a hotel. When the pandemic hit, they were both left jobless.

“My husband stopped working completely and they took a long time to make the furlough payment so we had to turn to the church for help,” says the mother-of-two, waiting outside a soup kitchen in the freezing wind in the Vallecas district.

While the payout has given the family some breathing room, the couple are still jobless, meaning they still need food packages.

“It’s a great help because we don’t have to buy milk, chickpeas, noodles, those things at least. And we can spend (the payout) on detergent or meat,” says Chambi, who misses the “stable life” she enjoyed after arriving from Bolivia 15 years ago.

Even before 2019, official figures showed more than one in four people in Spain were at risk of poverty or social exclusion, one of the highest rates in Europe.

And the pandemic has left the most vulnerable even more at risk.

“It’s so frustrating. Each time I try to escape this situation, something else happens,” sighs Amanda Gomez, 53.

Divorced just before the pandemic, she is raising two children on her own, one with Down’s Syndrome, on a cleaner’s tiny salary.

But she’s not ready to give up — a keen cook, she’s looking up recipes online to “make the most” of the food she’s got, and she is also beginning to bake cakes to order and deliver them to people’s homes.

The hope is that one day she might be able to open her own bakery.

“You dream big because dreaming doesn’t cost anything,” she says.

“What I want is to be able to go to the local church without asking for anything. Just to help out.”

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Cañada Real: Residents of Madrid’s shantytown struggle without heat in historic snowfall

"We're not animals but dogs live better than us," sighs Lidia Arribas, who lives without electricity in a vast slum near Madrid where temperatures hit historic lows this week.

Cañada Real: Residents of Madrid's shantytown struggle without heat in historic snowfall
Pictures by AFP's Jaime Alekos

Days after its heaviest snowfall in 50 years, Madrid woke on Tuesday to its lowest temperatures in decades, with the mercury plummeting to minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit).

And the brutal cold has hit particularly hard in Cañada Real Galiana, one of Europe's largest slums, where for months more than half of its nearly 8,000 residents have had no electricity for heating or light.

Police blame the shortage on the illegal cannabis plantations whose lamps, extractors and fans use so much power that they cause widespread electrical outages in the surrounding area.

The crisis posed by the power cuts and the cold snap has been denounced by UN human rights experts, NGOs and Oscar-winning Spanish actress Penelope Cruz.    

“I'm really angry with the authorities… everyone passes the buck… nobody does anything,” says Arribas (pictured below), a 37-year-old mother-of-three, torch in hand as she walks back to her home where mildew covers the walls.

Curled up in a blanket, her seven-year-old daughter Ainara says she always sleeps with her “head under the covers” to protect herself from the cold and the damp.

With no electricity, she and her brother and sister cannot get any of the online homework set by their school, and neither the fridge nor the washing machine are working.

An unofficial settlement built along a 16-kilometre (10-mile) stretch of land flanking the southeastern section of Madrid's M50 ring road, Cañada Real is home to a community largely of Moroccan or gypsy origin who live in extreme

Built along a former cattle trail, this sprawling shantytown has existed for decades, with this most recent power cut affecting some 4,000 residents. 

Infants with hypothermia

Without heating, the brutal freeze has left many struggling to cope.   

On Sunday night, a three-year-old girl was taken to hospital “showing signs of hypothermia”, says Conrado Gimenez, head of the Fondacion Madrina NGO which provides residents with food, blankets and gas bottles.   

Volunteers of Madrina Foundation hand out food packages during a food and goods distribution in sector 6.


A similar case occurred last month and was flagged by UN human rights experts who warned the power cuts were “endangering the health of some 1,800 children” in Cañada Real.

“Children in Cañada Real Galiana are truly suffering, and their health is at risk,” they said.

“Now that winter is closing in — and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic — electricity must be restored.”   

Lidia Arribas' next-door-neighbour Yolanda Martin (pictured below) says she is “more afraid of the cold than of Covid”.   

“I get up in the morning and my blankets have frozen, it's pitch dark and I can't have a shower,” says this 47-year-old whose lips are blue with cold.   

Out of work since May, her only source of heat and light is a chiminea which sits in the middle of her home.

“It will be minus 11C tonight, as cold as hell, but we're surviving with the little firewood we have left,” she told AFP.

“We're breaking tables and stuff that isn't worth much to throw on the fire.”

Cannabis farms bleeding power

Two policemen patrolling the area, which is notorious for supplying the capital with drugs, say the power cuts are caused by cannabis farms set up in homes in the area.

This week, Spanish energy giant Naturgy, which supplies free electricity to Cañada Real, began cutting power to several suspect homes in order to get the network back up and running.

Local residents and Pedro del Cura, mayor of Rivas-Vaciamadrid where part of the shantytown is located, are calling for more capacity be given to the network.

They also fear that power could be cut to homes with no links to the drugs trade.

Despite the cold, Arribas is still hopeful they will be reconnected to the grid so she can warm the house for her children, whose only consolation these days is the neighbourhood's running snowball fights.   

“We mustn't lose hope,” she says, her eyes downcast.   

“Somebody has to listen to us because we can't carry on like this. It's really very hard,” she sighs. “It's very sad.”

 By AFP's Thomas Perroteau