The disparity between the haves and have nots is easy to see in Baja Sur—just look at the vehicles people drive, the houses they live in. This pandemic, though, has only widened that divide, pushed those on the edge over the economic cliff, and shown that the government does not have the resources to save her people.
Thanks to a slew of nonprofits throughout the Todos Santos-Pescadero area people in need have food on their table. The demand became apparent the first week of April as commerce came to a screeching halt when the Mexican government put in protocols because of COVID-19. The economic crisis has not let up even as things have started to open and tourists are beginning to return.
“We are hearing more people are going back to work, but we are not seeing the need slide,” said Laurel D’Angelo, who is on the board of ACTS (Asociación de Colonos de Todos Santos) and involved with other nonprofits. “We are in slow season so we are not seeing the numbers decrease. If anything, we are seeing the need increase because more people are catching wind of the despensa program.”
Despensa, while it means pantry in English, is better known as a bag of basic food staples. It’s a pantry of a different kind; one that is extremely limited. Even though there is no mandate as to what a despensa must have, most include corn flour (masa) to make tortillas, milk, eggs, beans, lentils, rice, cooking oil, pasta, canned tuna, canned vegetables, oatmeal, and fresh produce when available. Most bags can last a family of four for two weeks.
Several groups in the area have despensa programs. Requirements to receive help vary, and with some organizations giving without questions being asked. Names of those who need assistance come via community leaders, neighborhood captains, the Padrino Children’s Foundation, the centro de salud in Todos Santos and Pescadero, and churches. Just like in other countries, those who never thought they would need this type of help are asking for it. The general minimum wage in Mexico is 123.22 pesos, or about $6.50 U.S. That’s per day. This is one reason why there were already programs in place to help people make ends meet. But those nonprofits did not have the resources to take care of everyone who is now suffering in the wake of COVID-19’s ensuing economic collapse.
“As an organization, we knew we needed to start raising funds for local food banks. The need was so great we ended up taking the lead on the Food Security Program. We order despensas, store them in a local bodega, and deliver door-to-door to those not served by the ACBCS program,” D’Angelo said. “ACTS currently has funds to support our area through the end of October. We plan to continue the program as long as there is a need, and if we have funds. Our goal is to ensure no one in our area goes to bed hungry during this time.”
Alianza Comunitaria de Baja California Sur, or ACBCS, is an umbrella agency working with more than 80 other groups. For the six-week period from July through mid-August, ACBCS provided 7,429 despensas.
“The Community Alliance began in March of this year and will continue to provide support while current funds last. Funding has come from philanthropic sources including foundations, individual and business contributions,” McKenzie Campbell, spokeswoman for ACBCS, said. “In terms of the Todos Santos-Pescadero region, ACBCS has provided support throughout the municipality of Todos Santos including the surrounding ranches.”
In Todos Santos families receive a despensa about every three weeks from ACBCS. The goal of the agency is that no one goes to bed hungry. The average cost of a despensa is about 500 pesos, or about $23 U.S.; with the value of the bag more to the recipient because so many items are bought in bulk or at discount, not at retail prices.
ACBCS volunteers created an app that tracks who is getting what, the number of people in a family, number of kids under 12, those older than 65. Information is private, but could be used in future emergencies, like a hurricane. A family receives a card with a bar code that is swiped, so there is a record of who received what. This can also cut down on fraud.
“The power of this organization is what enabled us to ensure our community was fed. They had the purchasing power to source all of the items in the despensas. They connected us with the Mexican marines, national guard, and army who provided storage bodegas, trucks for transporting, and muscle to help deliver,” D’Angelo explained. “We started by signing up families by going door-to-door in the hardest hit neighborhoods of Todos Santos and Pescadero, plus connecting with ranches and farmworker camps. ACTS also provided emergency despensas for families in urgent need, and enrolled new families into the ACBCS program, an average of 250 despensas every two weeks.”
Platos Con Amor, aka Community Dining Room, provides full meals to families. It started with people in Todos Santos and has since expanded to Pescadero.
“It began with my concern about the ravages that the COVID contingency would cause in the most vulnerable population of our town,” said Elisabeth Chavez, who has a catering business in Todos Santos. She talked with friends about her idea in early April and by April 27 was serving families. Chavez and Denisse Gonzalez run the hot meal program with the help of volunteers.
There was a time when 150 meals a day were delivered every day. That was scaled back to 30 meals Monday-Friday to keep it sustainable. The plan is to double that number in September. Platos Con Amor focuses on seniors, disabled and children. The goal is to have this community kitchen be a permanent fixture, and a resource for future emergencies. Money to keep it going has been from the expat community as well as ACTS. Chavez said the group is working on future fundraisers to ensure it can keep going indefinitely.
The names of people in need came from the mayor’s office, with that office also helping with food distribution. A kitchen has been installed in the municipal DIF building that will allow the services to continue.
A group of expats and locals Mexicans formed the Pescadero Food Bank three years ago and has been serving about 50 families a month. That number swelled to 200 families when the pandemic hit.
“We are an independent organization that does all its own fundraising, shopping, packing, and distribution. We do not receive any funds from any other group. We are now an official nonprofit in the U.S.,” explained Marla Lynch Edwards, vice president of the group. “We are committed to serving the vulnerable families of Pescadero for now and after the pandemic is over.”
Other groups helping stem the food insecurity emergency include Madre Teresa of Pescadero, the Aaron Cota Foundation, the Catholic Church, and individuals like Jess Flood and Serena Saltzman. Most of the groups have policies in place to keep everyone safe—masks, sanitation, distancing, and training in some cases.
“There are so many families who would never have asked for help. These are middle class families that are not used to asking for help,” D’Angelo said. “All of a sudden they can’t provide and they are shocked. There was not a way to save for this much time without work. They are ripping through their savings if they have any.
“A lot of people were poor before COVID and they know how to be poor, but they are so grateful for the extra bag of support. A lot of Mexicans have stepped up to donate time or money.”
While the busy season is just around the corner, no one knows what that will bring. Tourists? More COVID cases? Fewer donations? Greater need?
“The virus is contagious, but generosity is contagious too,” D’Angelo said.
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