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.”