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........ en da's wat anders dan een puddingbroodje!
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Bart0riste's signature Een vooroordeel is een mening die doorgaans niet op feiten is gebaseerd.....
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 mrt.15, 2015


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You can’t hide from children…


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                                   Poverty and school soup kitchens in Athens during the crisis



The financial crisis of the last five years in Athens, as well as in other Greek cities, has caused a major upset to the nutritional routine of ever larger social strata: changes in nutritional standards, reintroduction of types of food and recipes used in the past and branded as survival recipes, 
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 shrinkage in the consumption of basic (meat, fish etc) or luxury products, undernourishment for the families of the unemployed and the immigrants. Although the media shy away from direct references to food insecurity (by often taking the exact opposite approach broadcasting cooking shows targeted at “high taste” seeking viewers), daily undernourishment and deprivation of goods is a fact in the daily life of thousands of citizens. Let’s not forget that amongst the unemployed the poverty rate is 59.28%, whereas for the general population it is 38%. According to the Consumers’ Institute (INKA), about 2,000,000 Greeks live below the poverty line.

Undernourishment is a result of dietary imbalance according to the modern biological, medical and social standards. As the poverty statuses are not identical, the phenomena of undernourishment present themselves by way of many and varying “symptoms”. There are, however, nowadays some common threads: the low intake of proteins and high consumption of fat and carbohydrates, the routine of cooking or lack of it (therefore the consumption or non-consumption of fresh cooked food), the low-cost pre-packaged foods from the big super market chains, the frozen pre-cooked meals, and the consumption of rotten food from trash bins.
 
Child poverty and hunger
Children are a group that has suffered the consequences of poverty since 2010; a group visible and easily identifiable because they spend much of their time in school. According to a report drafted by an independent expert for the
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, the poverty rate amongst children and teenagers up to 17 years is estimated to be around 44%. The subsequent report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU-FRA), which refers to child poverty for the year 2012, expresses concern about the right to life, survival and development of children and teenagers whose families are struck by poverty and unemployment. The same report underlines that the Greek Unicef Committee had already published a report in March 2012 expressing concern about child poverty and undernourishment, as well as incidents of students passing out at school (
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.

The problem of children in Athens elementary schools going hungry was already rather evident as far back as 2011, a fact disputed for a long time by the Ministry of Education. A solution was provided through actions of non-institutional solidarity, in Athens and elsewhere, in the form of school soup kitchens. The following narrative is based on a story I heard from a teacher working at a central Athens elementary school in an impoverished area, and on data that I gathered from the press and websites, the local government, the Municipality of Athens, the Municipal Nursery, and the Archdiocese of Athens.
 
From sandwiches to school soup kitchens
Some teachers came to realise that a number of children did not have a lunch box during after-school time. So, they decided on an immediate solution; each bringing sandwiches from home on a day-to-day rotation to feed the children. They soon knew, though, that this system was only a makeshift solution, and turned to the Municipal Nursery of the Municipality of Athens. The Nursery has a cooking facility where meals are cooked daily for the nursery schools throughout the municipality. For the last three years, this elementary school has been receiving food on a daily basis from the Municipal Nursery and offers about 75 portions to all children going to the extended school in order to prevent discrimination. So every day a casserole or baked dish and bread are delivered in sealed packages. At lunchtime a classroom is turned into a dining room, and the teachers assume the role of waiters.

So the teaching personnel have taken on the educational part of the food distribution by monitoring the logistics of the operation: they make sure that the food is enough for everyone, and observe how the children respond (heedful of signs of bulimia or distaste for the food, or not consuming the food, only the bread etc). There are also cases where a remaining portion of food or bread is offered to a family that needs it. In this school (as in others) the teachers’ activism coupled with the cooperation of the Parent/Guardian Association has effected a prompt solution, which also forestalls any harm (humiliation, disparagement, shame) to the well-being of the children and their parents.

As there is no official data for the exact number of children eating in school soup kitchens, since the whole process runs both within and outside of the official institutions, and as the portion sizes vary (it depends on the present number of children; a portion can serve two children or more), I cite some data from the Municipal Nursery that give a scale of the problem. The Municipal Nursery of Athens provided food for about 8,000 children going to nurseries in the Municipality of Athens. Moreover, as early as December 2012 the Bank of Greece and the Employee Association of the Bank of Greece responded to a plea from the Municipal Nursery to cover the feeding costs of about 650 needy children at the extended elementary schools and kindergartens.
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The Ministry of Education first acknowledged the problem of child and teenage undernourishment in 2012. In collaboration with the Archdiocese of Athens (with the aim to send food packages to 2,000 poor children) and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation - through the non-profit organisation Institute of Preventive Medicine, Environmental and Occupational Health (Prolepsis), a feeding program was launched for public schools (elementary and high school) for students in impoverished areas of Athens and Thessaloniki, as well as in other areas of Greece. In 2012, 25,349 students were accepted into the program and 61,876 students in 2013 (from a total of 152,397 applications).

A firm demand of the teachers and the PGA is to avoid the infiltration of the private sector in the schools through sponsors and NGOs, and the delivery of a free meal to the children at the expense of the state – as practiced already since the 19th century and to this day in many European countries and the USA. In early 2013, a study was conducted at the Athens University of Economics and Business focusing on the delivery of school meals paid by public funds. The meals would be delivered free of cost to the poorest students, whereas the better-off would be paying a board fee (for example a monthly fee of 50 euros).
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The number of children living in food insecurity continues to skyrocket; the real numbers remain, however, obscure along with the real faces, and the overall picture of the physiological and pathological circumstances of hunger. Day after day the numbers of the unemployed and their families continue to trend upward. The shifting sand of poverty has yet to include the organised soup kitchens of the church (the Archdiocese and the regional diocese) for adults, as well as the collection of goods and food for distribution by well-known entities and sponsors – a move that is unfortunately often accompanied by an indecorous, to say the least, media campaign. In the course of 2013, the existing structures of social solidarity in the stricken city neighborhoods, especially of Athens, were multiplied and systematised by the residents themselves (social groceries, regular distribution of basic food products, solidarity carts – food donations in supermarkets which get passed to those in need, social soup kitchens etc).
 
The TV camera: a threat and a weapon for the weak
In summary, a few issues for further consideration. It is a fact that in the pre-crisis decades, the shift in the nutritional habits was rapid, as nutrition is intertwined with consumption and social class (personal taste with the social status and lifestyle). The crisis has turned the daily routine of the middle and working class upside down, and they are now driven to new survival strategies yet to be fully formed, and therefore studied with regard to their social, nutritional and psychological implications.

The crisis also begets a new, evermore draconian government biopolicy, which is faced with having to manage the daily needs of the unemployed, the immigrants, those living on the edges of society, the undernourished children and adults, and all those who are often turned into a spectacle, their faces usually full of shame as they try to escape the TV camera zooming in on them at the soup kitchen lines. On the other hand, the camera is the weapon of depiction, the best witness of a reality hard to describe, but also hard to dispute or ignore. The most overwhelming accounts of The Hunger of 1941-1942 in occupied Greece were the pictures: Voula Papaioannou and other photographers immortalised the dots of the “searing cycle of hardship” suffered by the contemporary people and especially the small children.

Even to this day, photography continues to depict truths, provoking the subdued conscience of those who do not see what they do not want to see. I am referring to the known image (in early 2013) of human hands reaching for a bag of tomatoes at a free food distribution event by desperate street market producers; an image that traveled around the world and was considered by many to portray an artificial and dangerous (for the purposes of tourism development and national pride) image of the Greek society. This image, however, – as the Greek sociology professor Konstantinos Tsoukalas has written – “is not a fabrication. The hands reaching out are more than real. They emerge from the same radical reality as Picasso’s Guernica”… As a matter of fact, no dignity can exist beyond the truth. A truth we are not allowed to conceal for our own sake.
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Public funding for soup kitchens
As long as the system of school meals is not funded by the government or local authorities the outcome will be twofold; the material resources will remain limited (and growing less and less so long as unemployment remains high); and the affected individuals, that is the children and their parents, will continue to suffer under poverty and hunger conditions and their implications: stress, shame, humiliation, bulimia, panic attacks, and occasionally more severe psychological disorders with vast implications for the rest of their lives. And of course, we are all aware of the cruel and dangerous acts, by individuals or groups, all this can lead to.

In conclusion, I cite the words of the four psychologist-authors of The psychopathology of Hunger, fear and stress (1947): “Hunger acted, perhaps more than terrorism, on the body and soul of the population in occupied Greece. Hunger conjured up in front of one’s mind’s eye the image of one's own extinction” … “Hunger proved to be the most effective intimidating measure and that’s why it was implemented by conquerors all across Europe” … “For a large share of the population hunger was an experience, a stimulant – totally new and unfamiliar – that naturally shook the human psyche to its core. At the same time, however, hunger had a direct impact on our deeper instinctive life, our biological foundation”.



Anna Mathaiou, 
an historian, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Thessaly.


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