LIMA, Peru -- Clara Arango wakes at 4 a.m. daily and checks on the ingredients for breakfast.
Eighteen pounds of oats, 13 pounds of sugar and a pound of cinnamon sticks, all ready. An hour later, Arango, 43, is using a shovel to stir 30 gallons of sweet oatmeal in a stainless-steel pot over a fire of wood scraps alongside a cinder-block community center in the hills overlooking Peru’s capital.
By 9 a.m., more than 150 of Arango’s neighbors in New Hope have paid 14 cents each for a plastic bowl of oatmeal from the ‘’community pot,’’ a phenomenon that’s become ubiquitous across Peru in recent months as coronavirus quarantines and shutdowns have left millions of poor people with no way to feed their families.
Often operating with help from the Catholic Church and private charities, soup kitchens and community pots have become a symbol of the conundrum facing a region where most of the working population labors outside the formal economy.
Economic shutdowns have forced poor Peruvians, Argentines and tens of millions of others to fall back on community-based efforts unseen in large numbers since crises like Peru’s 1990s civil war or Argentina’s financial crash two decades ago.
Still, without unemployment benefits or the ability to work from home, a cut-price plastic bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, some lentil stew or noodles in tomato sauce for lunch, and leftovers for dinner aren’t proving enough to keep poor Latin Americans from leaving their homes each day to earn a living as construction workers, street vendors or other types of day laborers.
The inability to keep people at home is proving a major factor in the spread of the coronavirus around the continent, where new cases and deaths are rising unchecked as an unbent curve of infection pushes intensive care wards to their limits.
Despite some of the strictest antivirus measures in the region, Peru has diagnosed 237,000 cases of coronavirus and counted 7,000 deaths, the highest number of cases per capita in the region and the second-highest per capita count of deaths.
At the same time, Peru is facing a 12% drop in gross domestic product this year, one of the worst recessions in the hemisphere, according to the World Bank.
“I barely have anything to eat at home," Arango said. ‘’Here I have a community pot and I can pool my resources with my neighbors and we can support each other and work together.
A single mother of two, she lost her job as a janitor when her employer closed his shopping mall in Lima’s wealthiest neighborhood due to the antivirus shutdown that began on March 16.
Government figures show more than 2.3 million other Lima residents also lost their jobs by April, out of a working population of roughly 16 million nationwide. The figure is expected to leap again when May numbers are released.
In Peru, thousands of community pots are steaming at breakfast and lunch in neighborhoods at levels not seen since inflation topped 7,000% in 1990 in the middle of the civil war with Shining Path Maoist guerrillas.
More than a third of Peru's 32 million people have had to engage in some form of community cooking due to lack of money, according to a May poll by the private, nonpartisan Institute of Peruvian Studies.
On a recent morning, a brief tour by Associated Press journalists in a mile radius of Arango's pot found more than 15 groups of neighbors cooking food together.
Waiting in line at one was Estéfany Aquiño, 11, who is helping her mother raise her 2-month-old sister after a cesarean section that left the woman unable to leave her house to look for food.
Estéfany said the community pot is her only defense against a hunger that's become a constant feature of life.
“Your stomach starts to hurt, to grumble, and then to talk to you,” the girl said.
Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra says the pandemic has revealed the weakness of the Peruvian system, which topped Latin America in economic growth for decades but has one of region's weakest social safety nets.
“We're far from being an example of efficiency as a state,'' he said Monday. “We have so many failings, so many problems.”
But Peru is far from the only country wrestling simultaneously with the virus and hunger.
In Buenos Aires, the church and local soccer clubs have been organizing community pots in some of the capital's poorest neighborhoods, and volunteers say their clients are becoming more desperate as virus-driven shutdowns continue.
“We used to put food for three people in a plastic container,'' volunteer Emanuel Basile said as he worked in the hard-hit 1-11-14 neighborhood. “Now they want us to cram in food for five.”
Sonia Pérez in Guatemala City, Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires and Michael Weissenstein in Havana contributed.