Peru's Soup Kitchens Struggle to Feed Masses : Hunger: Rural migrants in Lima join together to stretch food resources. Rations are pitifully thin with not nearly enough to to go around.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mercedes Maximiliana stirs a huge, steaming pot and wonders how many neighbors its contents will feed. Many will go hungry, she knows.

The pot boils over onto a sputtering kerosene stove that is the prize possession of the cocina popular , Maximiliana's soup kitchen in Los Rosales, a hillside shantytown.

Dozens of thin, ragged children wait anxiously around the thatch-roofed hut in the chill mist of the day.

They at least have a chance of eating. Food prices quadrupled this fall, and millions of Peruvians go to bed hungry every night.

Maximiliana's soup kitchen, called Los Revolucionarios (the Revolutionaries), is one of about 3,000 in this capital city organized by rural migrants who join together to save money on cooking.

Sixty mothers formed the soup kitchen five years ago, and it feeds nearly 400 people each day.

"More keep coming," Maximiliana said, "and we have to turn them away because we have no more food."

Roman Catholic Church officials say the soup kitchens serve an average of 400 people each, compared to 135 a few weeks two or three months ago.

Peru, an impoverished Andean nation of 22 million, is caught in the double stranglehold of severe economic crisis and its worst drought of the century.

When President Alberto Fujimori took office July 28, he inherited annual inflation of 3,000% and disastrous unemployment. Only one of five Peruvians has a steady job.

Fujimori imposed austerity measures, including elimination of subsidies on staple foods, to curb inflation. That was what drove prices up.

To help the poorest survive, the government created an emergency food aid program to provide relief for an estimated 7 million Peruvians. Officials now say the number needing help has risen to 11.5 million.

Officials said aid would be channeled through soup kitchens, religious organizations and neighborhood groups that administer a government program to give each needy child a free glass of milk a day.

Church organizations say they get only a fraction of the help they need, and impoverished government workers can't be counted on.

"Health workers are threatening to steal the food they're supposed to distribute," said Josephine Gilman, director of Prisma, a church-affiliated charity.

Over the chaotic scene hangs the specter of malnutrition. Cocina popular meals, often thin soups of rice and vegetables with a minimum of meat or fish, are not very nourishing.

A nutritional research center called Alternative says the meals provide only 473 calories and 16 grams of protein, far short of the basic daily requirements of 2,410 calories and 65 grams of protein.

In one soup kitchen in the Santa Rosa de Naranjal shantytown, two women chopped up 4 1/2 pounds of beef, a luxury.

"It has to stretch for 200 portions of soup," one said.

Standing nearby were children with bleached hair and swollen bellies, the marks of malnutrition and parasites.

UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, says 128 of every 1,000 Peruvian children die before age 5, a level comparable to that of some African countries.

Santa Rosa de Naranjal receives 55 pounds of fish a day for 600 people, and a week's worth of flour must last a month. The 15 cents the kitchens charge for a meal does little to supplement the skimpy government donations.

Peru's barely functional bureaucracy makes things worse. Transport problems and bickering between Customs and Health Ministry officials have stranded thousands of tons of donated food in warehouses at Lima's port of Callao, where it falls prey to rats and mold.

The bankrupt state oil company will not supply kerosene to the soup kitchens, as its contribution to the emergency program, unless the government pays for it. The state food company has run out of money to finance the milk program.

Tomas Alcedo of the relief agency CARE said government aid is disorganized and "just isn't big enough to deal with the problem."

Peruvians joke bitterly of suffering the biblical plagues: the drought, a major earthquake in the jungle in June, even locusts. A volcano near the southern city of Arequipa is threatening to erupt.

Outside a government-run soup kitchen in Lima's decaying downtown, thousands of people line up every day at 8 a.m. The kitchen's budget has been halved to 1,500 rations a day, and thousands are turned away.

Lunch is thin fare--wheat soup, rice and a tiny piece of fish--but people scuffle to get into line for it. Two policemen with automatic weapons enforce the closing of the doors at 1 p.m.

"There should be preference for babies," said a toothless father who had waited five hours in vain with his thin, 3-month-old daughter in his arms.

"She hasn't eaten today."

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