Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Food bank - Community grocery (Δημοτικό παντωπολείο)

At the first parent-teacher meeting at the junior high school, the first person to take the floor was a local town councillor, who explained the desperate need of the local municipality to procure πρώτης ανάγκης food items (ie food considered  basic and essential) to stock the community grocery needs for the area. In Greece, most of these organisations are run by state bodies at a local level so they aren't really food banks - they don't operate by charities, they aren't privately run, and they nearly always operate on behalf of the state.

In the rather messy world that I live in, my kids' school belongs to a different municipality from the one that I live in. I sensed a tone of desperation in the representative's pleas: councils' state funds have now been reduced given the times we live in, but municipalities are still obliged to have a community grocery (a very new crisis-related concept in Greece) to look after the needs of - in this particular municipality - 84 families in the area, approximately 220 people in total, in a region with a population of approximately 18,000. The woman explained that if each family (not each child) with children in the school could bring just one packet of an essential food item per month (eg flour, sugar, coffee, pasta, rice, beans, tomato paste), that would be a huge saving for the council, who would have to buy these foods to hand out (I think monthly, for a period of 6 months, to eligible families meeting the criteria, which I do not know).

Food constitutes the biggest expense in our house at the moment. Gone are those summer days when all we did was pick a zucchini and tomato from the garden, and add some farm-fresh eggs to it (even the hens where I got my freebies from have stopped producing now with the cooler weather), or pick a bunch of fresh beans and vlita greens, and call that food. We buy most of our food needs now (those brassica aren't quite ready yet, and they won't be until it gets chilly).

2L soya oil – 3.45 (olive oil was more expensive)
250g filter coffee – 1.50

820g tinned peaches – 1.09
300g bacon – 1.99
380g Gouda cheese 20 slices – 3.00
160g ham (8 slices) – 1.00
200g fresh cheese – 1.00
180g Greek coffee – 1.39
800g canned mushrooms – 1.85
500g salt – 0.19
410g tomato paste – 1.02
3x85g crushed tuna – 2.75
4 x 410g canned milk – 0.60x4 = 2.40
2kg rice – 2.36
1kg flour – 0.69
1kg sugar – 0.98
3+1 semi-sweet biscuits – 3.29
500g spaghetti – 0.45 
3x300g canned corn niblets – 1.95
5x72g rusk slices – 1.14
500g dried yellow split peas – 0.97
500g dried black-eyed beans – 0.95
500g dried lentils – 0.75
500g dried wheat grains – 0.57
500g dried beans – 0.94
TOTAL: approximately 39 euro (all bought from Carrefour Marinopoulos)
I am imagining the things IU would cook with these foods. My only regret is not adding some chocolate powder to the donations: if the parents are drinking coffee, the kids could at least be adding a tablespoon of chocolate powder to their milk. Some items are not essential, but they are not so expensive that we cannot enjoy them.

In Greece, basic food need not be expensive. Basic essential 'primary' ingredients (ie stuff you can't eat as they are, but which become edible when they are cooked) can be found very cheaply in supermarkets. By essentials, I mean ingredients that you can use to cook something from scratch: oil, beans, rice, pasta, flour, milk, tomato paste, sugar, etc. Food banks in Greece stock mainly this kind of very basic stuff; we are a nation of cooks. Greek food banks generally do not stock things like tinned soup, pasta sauces, rice pudding and sponge pudding (they are not in our culinary culture). What is considered an essential item in one country may not be seen in the same way in another country. This also applies on an individual basis. Sugar is a controversial example; but if you are cooking most of your food needs 'from scratch', you will need sugar to make plain biscuits or a simple cake, for example. The morning starts off better if you can have a cup of tea or coffee with sugar if you take it sweet. I don't use sugar myself in my hot drinks, but I'm one of those who needs a spot of milk in them. I will simply not have any if I don't have milk on hand, and I suspect that those who like their hot drinks sweet will also not bother to have any if they are out of sugar. I remember my poorer days when I was renting in Athens - making instant coffee the way I liked it was one of my luxuries.

Most supermarket chains (which are found everywhere) are always running some kind of special on basic items. Pasta is a classic example; there always seems to be a pasta special going at all chains. You will also find cheap rice, beans and flour sold under private labels, which most Greeks have turned to these days, having shunned them for a long time until the crisis hit them. Tomato paste is also very cheap - and most of the time, it's made in Greece - and a little goes a long way. Sugar, while relatively cheap, is rarely sold under a private label in Crete these days - this is because the national sugar manufacturer was sold and since then, most sugar that enters the country is imported. Although you can find cheap food in Greece, it should be noted that there is no way that you will be able to eat on 1-2 euros a day if you don't produce some of the food yourself. Our supermarkets never ever EVER sell food cheaply in the way that you can find heavily discounted items in UK supermarkets. (I recall a bin close to a cashier at Tesco's in Lewisham where I often shopped when I was staying with freinds - there were all sorts of packaged items in it - I even saw a loaf of sliced bread in it once - being sold for as little 15p.) Then there are also some foods that, however cheap they can be procured, would never be regarded as essential food - or even 'real' food - in Greece: glancing at the home page of this discounted food website, I can imagine a public outcry in this if this were being given out at a food bank in Greece.

Food banks/community groceries accept only dry goods. This is because they don't have cold storage facilities (which have running costs), fresh goods have a short lifespan, and deliveries to the eligible needy are not made frequently. For this reason, I could not donate any fresh food (I bought some private label bacon, ham and cheese, but had to take them out of the packet when I delivered them to the food bank). But I did include some canned corn, mushrooms and peaches (to substitute for fresh fruit and vegetables), and some canned milk and tuna which have a long shelf life. Meat is a little difficult to organise for a food bank - I thought about adding a packet of soya chunks/mince, but the price for fresh pork was cheaper...

I comfort myself with the knowledge that the municipality concerned is mainly rural which means that there are fresh products available, and most people are able to harvest something located close by to them. They are also probably being supplied fresh food by friendly neighbours, and they are also growing some of it themselves. So they are probably not going completely hungry. The food problem is mainly a low-income problem: after paying the bills, the people concerned will not have enough money left over for other basic needs, such as ingredients that are needed to cook with the fresh foods that are available to them. People in this area do not have the same kind of food crisis that urban people have. The word 'poor' does not denote the concept well - poverty standards are different according to landscape differences.

What troubled me most was when I visited the council to donate the goods. The food bank was closed, but I could peer through the window, where I made out a shabby arrangement of packaged goods. There was really not much in it, and the premises looked dusty. The main council offices were located across the road: large rooms, freshly painted walls, new furniture... and hardly anyone in the building. Many of these buildings were being built/refurbished at a time when the small regional councils were about to be merged into larger units (in an attempt to stand their own ground, according to the conspiracy theory) - and then everything was thrown up in the air when the crisis came along: bad management all the way. Now there is no money to employ people to fill up the vast empty spaces, while some former employees will be/have been made redundant. As our ancient ruins remind us of our glorious past, these buildings now stand as relics of unfulfilled dreams, the crumbled remains of a future that never took place.

The westernisation of Greece didn't happen overnight, but we still can't cope with Western 'urban diseases', which did seem to creep in overnight to some extent. Nevertheless, Greeks do show compassion to the poor by sharing thier food. For the last two years now, there are trolleys placed in prominent positions at most chain supermarkets where shoppers can place packets that they've bought which they wish to donate to food banks/community groceries. I recently read that this is about to start soon in the UK - so Greece is well ahead on this one.

I left my donation as anonymously as I could, which was easy, because, for a start, I am not from the area. An employee told me to sit and wait until she came back to take down my details, by which time I had disappeared. I won't be going back there too soon; I don't want to be faced with the same sight again: it hurts to see the shambolic state of the last remaining threads of a system fighting to stay upright. For now, I've done my bit for the food bank for the year all at once. Give a man fish and he will eat, but he needs to learn how to fish to eat forever, and there is little of that kind of eduation going on at the moment in the state the council is in. My donation will help this particular food bank to keep ahead of their needs: I wouldn't want to be down to my last packet of pasta myself.

As for that teacher's meeting, it took place last week, a month after the school opened since the end of the summer holidays. Only yesterday (nearly six weeks after term started), the children got their daily timetable to tell them what they are doing from one day to the next - all information before that was handed out by word of mouth. The headmaster had some 'good excuses' for this: there were strikes (!) and not all the required staff had been assigned to the school (apparently, he was waiting for some more teachers) to be assigned by the state authorities for his school. He complained that first year junior high schoolers were very immature, not obeying instructions, showing little heed for the teachers, and being unable to organise their studies. Why is he so surprised that the kids seem so disorganised? The school was not much better!

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.