BUENOS AIRES – The Argentine Senate approved on Wednesday a measure to renew a 17-year-old emergency food law amid the worsening economic crisis in the South American nation.
All 61 senators present for the session voted in favor of the renewal, which passed in the lower house last week.
Enacted in 2002 as Argentines suffered Depression-level unemployment and poverty following a financial collapse, the law was re-authorized on a regular basis until last December, when it was allowed to lapse.
The renewal of the law until 2022 mandates the creation of a national nutrition and food program and an increase of at least 50 percent in government spending to counter hunger.
Argentina’s congressional budget office estimates that the required additional appropriations will amount to 10 billion pesos ($172 million) this year.
The emergency food law also gives Cabinet ministers the power to redirect funds budgeted for other purposes to dealing with hunger.
Promoted by the opposition, the renewal was initially opposed by conservative President Mauricio Macri, who said that his administration was already doing enough to address the problem.
Ultimately, however, the president said that ruling-party lawmakers should make themselves “available” to approve the extension of the emergency food law.
In the hours ahead of Wednesday’s Senate session, thousands of people gathered outside the capitol to demand that senators pass the bill.
The latest government statistics, from the first quarter of 2019, show that 34.1 percent of Argentines are living below the official poverty line, while 7.9 percent are indigent.
But figures released Wednesday signal a nearly 59 percent in the price of food staples during the 12 months ending Aug. 31, leading opposition lawmakers to suggest that the actual poverty rate is closer to 40 percent.
Sen. Maria Magdalena Odarda said that 10 percent of children in Argentina – one of the world’s leading agricultural exporters – were “experiencing hunger.”
“We are a country capable of providing food for 400 million people and we can’t figure out how to provide food for 15 million people,” she said on the Senate floor. “How can it be that a child goes to bed with an empty stomach or that his parents skips meals to feed that child.”
Argentina’s GDP fell 2.5 percent in 2018, according to the latest official figures available, and the economy contracted by 3.1 percent on a year-on-year basis in the January-May 2019 period.