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The Food Project: When your local council refuse to help Families in Need and you have to call the Army

The Food Project: When your local council refuse to help Families in Need and you have to call the Army

Original reporting on The Food Project by: Adrián Suárez of Canarias Ahora   Images: Alejandro Ramos

Additional interpretation: Edward Timon, The Canary

The pandemic has multiplied the numbers of individuals and families in need of social assistance throughout Spain and The Canary Islands, hitting tourist areas such as the south of Gran Canaria with extra force. However, that does not seem to have hindered the Mogán Town Council, during the biggest crisis in more than 100 years, from appearing determined to evacuate the premises provided by the previous administration to the only organisation of its kind in the municipality that distributes food and other basic products to those most in need.  The local mayor and her councillors in the majority CIUCA party council are adamant they want The Food Project out, potentially leading to closure of a donations funded, volunteer led, local neighbours association that has been assisting local residents for nearly twenty years and feeding the most poverty stricken since 2008.

The decision of Onalia Bueno’s administration threatens to end the charitable project run by the Neighbours Association Asociación de Vecinos “Las Lomas de Arguineguin”, which for twelve years has assisted families in distress – nearly 300 right now representing more than 700 individuals – in collaboration with the official Food Bank of Las Palmas and the European Union Food Bank. To justify their decision, the Town Council, once they were found out, have suddenly deployed a whole battery of arguments, in a hastily put together press conference last week, claiming a raft of contractual and hygine breaches, never previously mentioned, that range from a lack of collaboration with the local social services through to electrical, maintenance and even pest problems, which the association strenuously denies and have addressed one by one, following the announcements last Wednesday.

At the sparsely attended press conference attempting to explain the unexpected plan to evict, Councilor for Social Services, Tania Alonso, said that the main reason for the closure is “to defend the efficiency of public services and avoid duplication of benefits,” claiming that “there are people who take advantage of the current situation to benefit from the public social protection system”. Jenni Hymoff, president of the association, has stressed that, as stated in the original agreement for the transfer of the premises, the organisation is totally independent from the Town Council and that near enough all the food they distribute comes from private donations, national and European aid projects, and not from the local council.  The council have no say in who the association chooses to feed.

According to Councillor Alonso, who sat at her mayor’s left shoulder during the unexpected announcement, the Town Council have tried to sign a new agreement with the association, that would require The Food Project to share data on all the families they serve, they say to prevent abuse of services. Hymoff emphatically disputes that any meeting has ever been held to discuss a new deal with the municipality. In addition, the association points out that this could create a data protection conflict and, in any case, it is a moot point as whenever a new family arrives asking for help, the association refers them to Social Services in the first instance, and then offers them food they need while their municipal aid application is being processed.

Food stored at The Food Project premises

“People have to eat and cannot wait weeks for the administration to fix all the documentation,” says the neighbourhood leader. However, the CIUCA party-led town council say, as though it is proof of mismanagement and lack of cooperation, that the association serve 300 families when Social Services, according to the councillor, has only issued sixteen reports this year to refer families to the NGO.

Alonso, in an apparent attempt at reassurance, says that Mogán is “a municipality with resources” and that, even if the neighbourhood association closes, its users will not be left helpless. At the press conference, the mayor applauded the work of her team at this time of crisis, seemingly overlooking having denied the association, during the State of Emergency lockdown and confinement, any of the logistical support that been previously agreed, forcing the Spanish Army to intervene so that the distribution of food did not stop getting to where it was most needed.

“I would love that our work was not necessary, to dedicate myself to something more relaxing, but if everyone was well served, not so many hungry families would arrive at our doors,” says the president of the neighbourhood organisation.

The Mogán municipal government has alleged a lack of hygiene, at the project, to justify its decision. Rodents were, at some time in the past, detected in the next door nursery school, the pest control company Faycanes made an inspection of the area and in their report stated that one possible source “an adjoining plot where all kinds of belongings were accumulated – (which the Town Council has assumed is the association’s premises) – may be a place of rodent entry”. However, the same company later inspected the premises in question, certifying that it does not have an infestation of rats and pointing to a third site as the likely source of the kindergarten’s problems. In addition to this, the association has the explicit approval of the Ministry of Agriculture, responsible for the national food distribution program, following their periodic inspection of the premises last December.

The Food Project neighbourhood association building in the town centre, with the old municipal nursery of Arguineguín in the background.

Representing Mogan town council, Bueno and Alonso also criticised an accumulation of boxes and pallets in the The Food Project yard, saying that these could cause a fire hazard. Hymoff has responded that these are essential equipment for their work, and that the problem lies in the Town Council’s lack of lack of willing to understand the service they carry out. The neighbourhood association coordinator denounces the accusations of the administration, saying that they have denied her any request to meet to address any needs of the project, for years.

Mayor Onalia Bueno, in her speech at the half hour press conference, also criticised the state of the electrical installations at the building, and the number of electrical appliances used to keep food cold. Hymoff alleges that it was the Town Council that made the installation and that, despite her requests, the Local Government has not allowed her to carry out any works to improve the building’s conditions. Nevertheless the association has painted the walls to try to keep the areas clean and prevent damp from the building from affecting their work.

After multiple attempts, it has not been possible to access any town council technical reports regarding the association’s eviction.

The premises in question was once teachers housing, adjacent to the municipal nursery school, which, following the construction of a new school, is expected to cease operations when new courses begin in September. In statements to Spanish language daily newspaper, El Diario, the Councillor for Social Services says that the Town Council hopes to demolish all the structures in this block and that they are considering “several options” for the use of these public lands in the centre of the town of Arguineguín, on the second line from the beach, soon to be redeveloped with a new sports marina.

If the Town Council finally terminates the assignment of the premises to The Food Project run by the neighbourhood association, they could be doomed to total closure, since they do not have funds to cover a rent for any type of similarly suited accommodation. Social Services say they cannot offer an alternative because they do not have spaces available. The organisation has specifically requested, by registered application, to remain in their current premises until the new municipal funeral home has been completed which would create a vacant space for The Food Project to move into the facilities currently being used, next to the David Silva sports centre.

The beneficiary families of the social project have submitted multiple writings to the Town Council asking for their expulsion to be stopped and the volunteers have created a campaign to collect signatures on Change.org that already has more than 1,100 supporters.

The local government has given ten days for the presentation of objections against its decision and one month to evacuate the building. For her part, the president of the association says she will continue with her work. “This week I get 10,000 kilos of food and someone has to distribute it to the people who need it,” he says.

Source: Canarias Ahora/El Diario

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