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Thursday, 3 January 2013

Hungry (Πεινασμένος)

Every day on the TV news during the Christmas period, food was the main focus in most items: how people are donating to food banks, how the poor, needy and homeless are being fed in soup kitchens, and how people are asking churches to look after their children because they don't have enough money to buy food to nourish them. The stories are all from Athens: the worst-hit area is the Western suburbs (the poorest and most polluted part of Athens), an area I know well as I worked there before moving to Crete, choosing also to live in the area instead of following my colleagues every night, back into the glitzy facade of central Athens (beneath the veneer, that too was grimy). The Western suburbs of Athens are full of working class people who have worked very hard to maintain their dignity in a city that never really allowed them to rise. These same people are now suffering the loss of what they strove to maintain: their dignity, as they search, not for ways to keep themselves sheltered, but ways to feed themselves and their families. Urban areas suffer the most in times of crisis because they cannot be self-sufficient to any degree. As a priest said in one of those reports, "all that these people have left for them is a house and a car, and neither of those can put food on your plate."

A stroll off the beaten track in Hania led to my chancing on an event staged by a work colleague. She was holding a 'soup party' in a very quiet narrow car-free zone in the old town of Hania.

The situation is now very dire. Teachers are now noticing that children are fainting in class, being sent to school without breakfast, not even a glass of milk, and their lunchboxes contain very little food and/or very low-quality food (one person remarked that when a child opened its lunchbox, he saw just one piece of toast bread in it). A milk-at-school campaign is now being started to help the children most badly in need of nutrituous food. Soup kitchens abound now, but this is not really going to solve the problem because people cannot really be fed nutritiously, even from soup kitchens. What malnourished people need is high-energy food full of proteins; but what they're most likely getting is hi-carb food - filling, but fattening, which is not really appropriate for a sedentary body like many homeless and unemployed people's.

Ilektra is a forester, and her partner is a cook. They presented a range of soothingly warm soups (pumpkin, greens, beetroot and onion) outside Ilektra's friend's arts and crafts store. 

Because soup kitchens have to cater for a large number of people, they cannot cook meals that require a lot of preparation in terms of vegetable chopping. What's most likely to go into a soup kitchen meal is a lot of beans, rice and pasta, and little fresh food, cheese or meat. Food collection points ask people to place non-perishables in the bins and the food isn't collected on a daily basis, because it isn't easy to do this. I recently felt guiltywhen I placed a packet of pasta into a food collection bin at the supermarket, which was filled with other dry goods, like flour, sugar, condensed milk, etc. I know that I can afford to give better quality food. But I had no choice. I could not place anything other than dry packeted goods. I couldn't bring my excess garden-grown produce to it, as it would go off. And what about all those oranges that fall off our trees every year? It's doubtful that the hungry and homeless have eaten very fresh food in a while, but even in that case, there are some foods that the very hungry cannot eat. An apple for example would do much more good for an empty stomach than an orange.

Ilektra was motivated to do this by her desire to share good food and drink (wine and tsikoudia were also offered) in the Christmas spirit. Note that she did not provide food like a soup kitchen - she just enjoyed the idea of sharing her food and called her event a 'soupa party'.   

Foraging has always been a favorite pasttime of both rural and urban Greeks, although admittedly, it is mainly the domain of people who live near areas where they can forage. But recently, I have seen people foraging in areas where no one would have done so in the recent past - near roadsides and urban areas, ie places that are more likely to be polluted by car fumes and animal faeces. But that's all that is available to some people: if you don't live near fields or pastureland, and you can't afford the transport costs, you will forage at any place where you know you can find food. This is in fact what happened during Greece's famine in WW2 when the Nazis confiscated all food resources for their troops' supplies and blocked Athenians' access to food, thereby causing starvation which led to death in the coldest harshest winter of that period. Athenians took to the hills that surrounded them, stripping the earth bare of foliage, cutting down trees for firewood.

The atmosphere at the 'soupa party'. 

The Greek Orthodox Church has graciously extended a helping hand to people in need of food. Nice idea, I thought to myself. But that is not going to really help alleviate the ordinary Athenian's hunger and the problem of feeding a hungry society, as I recently discussed on my facebook page:

  • Organically Cooked It sounds like a nice gesture, but I'm afraid that is all it is, it won't make a difference to the Greek food crisis (this is my opinion, but I feel sure about this). 
    The problem is that people need to live NEAR their land to be able to work it to produce food on it - if you live far away, you need petrol and time to get to it, but if you have a job, you don't have time to work on your land; if you are unemployed, you don't have the money to get to your land. The church owns a lot of land and doesn't want the state to make it pay taxes on its land - ie it wants to be an exception to the rule that is forcing all Greeks to be taxed on their land ownership as of 1/1/2013. The church is saying that it will allow people to cultivate freely on it, but that is akin to saying "come work it for me for free". I believe there is no such thing as a free lunch, especially these days in Greece where not even the bones and off-cuts of meat cut at the supermarket butcher counter are given away for free (I used to ask for them and cook them with cheap pasta to feed our dog). Now, people are buying them to turn into soup (it's the cheapest way to get yourself some protein).
    I cant speak for the church, or tell it what to do, but I feel it's pretending to be generous. I know how hard it is for me and my husband to visit our fields regularly given that we have a regular day job and our kids are young and need our attention. When we go, we often find things missing in them (ie someone has come along and picked up firewood, or foraged, or harvested our own crops). I hold no grudges - if people are hungry, in need or whatever, then I guess this happens, especially when fields are located far from inhabited areas. Ours are only 10 or so km away, but we can't drive there and back every day when we have other jobs, and we have no place to stay overnight to get more work done on them over a weekend, for example.
    In a nutshell,I don't think the church's offer will provide the soluton to the Greek food crisis.

Look at the homeless people being fed a New Year's lunch in the BBC link I mention above: do they look as though they are in a position to be able to work someone else's land to provide for their own food needs?

I hosted New Year's lunch this year. The vasilopita was made with our own supplies of oranges and olive oil, the eggs were given to me by relatives, the fruit and vegetables were all our own supplies, as was the wine; but we don't raise beef (for the moussaka mince), or goat (for the tsigariasto stew), or pork (for the tigania) - nor do we grow our own wheat to grind into flour. No money, no honey.  

It's at times like this that you realise you are really useless and your actions will not have the desired effect. Teaching a man to fish is better than giving a man a fish, but when he's hungry and lives far away from the sea, a fishing rod will be useless. He needs that fish badly. But what people really need at the moment is not just food, but a job. They need money. We are not self-sufficient. Neither can we be truly self-sufficient. Trying to fend for ourselves as our ancestors did in the past means we are condemned to an antiquated lifestyle that does not allow us to advance. If you really had to pick every piece of fruit you ate yourself, and you had to keep guard over your land like a hawk to stop people stealing the fruits of your labour, that's all you're going to do in life: feed yourself. Isn't life worth more than that? If the church really wants to help hungry people, well, how about providing jobs on the land (the church's land, mind you), and paying them money, instead of just letting them work their land? Can unemployed Athenians (ie the main group suffering from a lack of food) really be expcted to cultivate land far away from their apartments? I don't think so.

If there is a food crisis in Greece at the moment, it all has to do with the distribution of food. Rural areas grow more than they need, urban centres can't access the freefall; rural people tend to have their own supplies of a range of products, urban people need to buy everything, but don't have the money to do this now; transportation costs cannot always be met for food to be distributed to those that need it, on time before it perishes. It's not a lack of resources that is stopping Greeks from being able to feed themselves - it's a lack of coordination, and the high transport costs.

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