In the shadow of the Congressional Palace, vacant since the military seized power in 1976 on a promise of progress through order, about 80 people wait in a church courtyard for a meal from the soup kitchen.

Argentina, the breadbasket of South America and a land of crowded restaurants, has its first serious unemployment problem in recent times. It comes accompanied by bread lines and malnutrition that the Argentines thought could only occur among the "tropical" countries to the north.

"I get up every morning, looking for a job, but every ad in the papers brings many lines and much competition," said Roberto Gonzalez, 28, a bakery worker. "This is the first time I've ever been without a job."

"Most of the people who come here are unemployed, and if we find them a job they always want it," said the Rev. Luis Kucovica, a Jesuit who runs the Queen of Martyrs soup kitchen that opened Feb. 1. "But we've had electrical engineers here who couldn't find work.

"In the provinces, people could aways get a little job or at least some bread, but here there is nothing," he added, noting Argentina does not have any unemployment insurance system.

Economics Minister Jorge Wehbe said recently that Argentina is confronted with the worst economic crisis in its history. The jobless rate has gone from 2 percent two years ago to 15 percent today, according to economists.

Inflation, which has exceeded 100 percent in recent years, has been running at an annual rate of 450 percent in recent months. The country is negotiating a $1.75 billion credit package with the International Monetary Fund as a prelude to overall refinancing the $40 billion foreign debt -- third only to Mexico's and Brazil's in the developing world. The IMF's price tag: a package of belt-tightening measures.

"Real wages are now 10 percent below what they were in 1950," said Diego Estevez, a former top economic planner here.

Marriages have gone down by a third within a decade, social workers say, because couples cannot afford even the minimum needed to set up housekeeping.

At the Buen Pastor Church in Isidro Casanova, a mixed-use industrial zone where many poor live, a "baby kitchen" was opened in August to feed children -- many the victims of rickets and other malnutrition-related diseases.

"At the beginning we took care of 28 youngsters, at the end of the week it was already 100, and now it is 130, 140 or even more," said Luis d'Elia, the kitchen administrator. His wards, many coming barefoot and bedraggled, are fed twice a day.

In the Quilmes district, part of the industrial cordon that partially encircles Buenos Aires, local authorities say the situation is getting critical. In the archdiocese there, church officials say, 26,000 people line up each day at soup kitchens.

"A few months ago a child of eight months died right here of malnutrition," said the Rev. Gino Gardenal, 34, of Nuestra Senora de Milagros Church in Bosques, pointing to a cot next to his desk. "I've got a 3-year-old child in the house right now that weighs the same as a 1-year-old.

"People are selling all their furniture to be able to eat," he said. "Many have come to me to try to sell a watch, their tools, whatever. People are very embarrassed to have to come here. We see a few men, but it's very humiliating for them. They'll bring their kids to the corner and wait, but it costs them so much emotionally just to do that."

Gardenal, who runs three soup kitchens feeding a total of 700 people, said the local government gives his church about $60 a month but "this doesn't even buy bread for two days. Each day we ask stores for food, milk, but each day it is less and less they can give us," he said. "I know many priests and nuns who are afraid to open up their own kitchens because they don't have any idea where they'd get the food."

Gardenal, who opened his first olla popular -- people's stewpot -- two years ago, said his church offers "soup of whatever we can get: bones, noodles, rice, and when it's to be had, potatoes or bread."

"The stewpot is a way of getting more food to more people," he said.