Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Soup kitchen (Συσσίτιο)

Soup kitchens: that's a scary phrase - it means poverty, misery, κακομοιριά. Unless we need them, we don't know anything about them. If you need to use the services of a soup kitchen, you have reached the lowest level - you are unable to feed yourself, whether it is because you cannot afford to, or because you are unable to.

Cook up an oily vegetable-based sauce with some cheap meat cuts (in this case, frankfurter chunks were added), pour some water over it and add the pasta - this is quick and easy to cook, and it provides a lot of servings with little effort.

So what do the poor and disabled eat when someone else provides them with their meal? I can only imagine it is something cheap and easy to cook, which can be made in large batches, to provide many portions. Those who cook the meal must procure the ingredients in the cheapest way they can. They are not running a for-profit service - they are serving hungry malnourished people. In Greece, cooking for others is guaranteed to involve large pots of something cooking fresh over a fire - the idea of packaged food does not hold, even among the poor and those who provide food for them. Packaged food is regarded as crap - not only that, but it;s expensive in a country rich in agricultural products. When you know someone is unable to feed themselves, you try to give them the best food you can afford. A hot meal is symbolic of love and sympathy; it will warm up the soul of the impoverished even before they begin to eat.

The people in need come to the parish church, slide open the aluminium window and leave their empty clean container on the mantelpiece. Not all soup kitchens have communal dining areas, but there is another reason why these people may not wish to dine with others - disability may impede them from doing so, while poverty is sometimes best suffered in silence.

Few people would be able to guess who is receiving soup kitchen meals. Most of the people who receive soup kitchen meals do not look as though they are living in discomfort. The area of St George's church in Katsifariana is not built up, there are many green fields full of orchards surrounding the church, and there are no homeless people to be seen inthe area. The people who come to the church with their empty plastic containers do not all come from the area: some walk from Souda; others use their motorbike to drive in from Hania; some come in battered cars. Distribution is the biggest problem in feeding the poor, who are all from different walks in life, but have one thing in common: an empty stomach. Your home keeps you sheltered, but it does not feed you. You can own your own home forever (who cares if the electricity is cut off?), but to keep yourself nourished, you need 2000 calories a day, spread over at least three meals, and there is never a point in your life when you will be able to say that you have enough food to keep you alive forever.

When the meal is cooked, the bowls are taken to the counter and filled. The bowls contain multiple servings. Bread is also provided, as is fruit as well as salad.

The wife of the priest cooks the meals herself, with the help of some girls and women who peel potatoes, chop vegetables and clean the kitchen. These women are not in employment themselves, but may be in a better economic position to keep themselves and their families nourished. Different meals are cooked every day. The meals are offered to families where both members have lost their jobs, and hence have no income apart from what may be needed to pay the basic utility bills: electricity, water, telephone, rent, heating fuel - it probably won't be enough even for all of that. Some meals are also offered to immigrants who will not be entitled to any benefits from the Greek state. Their existence hangs on a thread.

The people who use these services will not look much different from me. They will live in a similar house to my own. Every morning, they will get up and splash some water on their face, and comb their hair, and make a cup of tea or coffee like I do. But unlike me, they will not leave the house to go to work. I imagine that if they leave the house at all, it will be in search of work, or a hardship grant, or some food.

Before the economic crisis, this parish church used to cook up to 40 meal portions. This gradually doubled to 80 portions; it is now serving 135 portions daily - that's a 240% increase since 2009.

Many people who have recently lost their source of income use the services of this soup kitchen. But the fact is that this soup kitchen had been started well before the crisis. The economic crisis may sound like a new concept, but in reality, many of our fellow citizens have been living through some kind of crisis well before the economic crisis broke out. Churches have always been there to help them through difficult times. 

This is the kind of cooking I enjoy doing myself. If I were unemployed, I'd want to work in a soup kitchen because I know my food would always be appreciated. Plating fancy salads and hearing the first-world complaints of diners with too much spare cash and not enough sense and knowledge to cook a meal for themselves would probably not give me job satisfaction. I can imagine tipping their plates over their heads. I like cooking real food for real people.

I have never been to a soup kitchen. It is not my job to go to one, except as an onlooker, a kind of nosy-parker, and this is neither possible, nor welcome. Thanks again to Eirini who goes along to help at this one when she has time; her photos show how the system works in a non-descript area on the outskirts of the town of Chania, concealing the problems of the area in such a way that no one will ever suspect what may be hiding behind the picturesque facade of our Mediterranean coastal resort town. 

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