[Marxism] More Children in Greece Are Going Hungry

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Apr 18 08:30:31 MDT 2013


NY Times April 17, 2013
More Children in Greece Are Going Hungry
By LIZ ALDERMAN

ATHENS — As an elementary-school principal, Leonidas Nikas is used to 
seeing children play, laugh and dream about the future. But recently he 
has seen something altogether different, something he thought was 
impossible in Greece: children picking through school trash cans for 
food; needy youngsters asking playmates for leftovers; and an 
11-year-old boy, Pantelis Petrakis, bent over with hunger pains.

“He had eaten almost nothing at home,” Mr. Nikas said, sitting in his 
cramped school office near the port of Piraeus, a working-class suburb 
of Athens, as the sound of a jump rope skittered across the playground. 
He confronted Pantelis’s parents, who were ashamed and embarrassed but 
admitted that they had not been able to find work for months. Their 
savings were gone, and they were living on rations of pasta and ketchup.

“Not in my wildest dreams would I expect to see the situation we are 
in,” Mr. Nikas said. “We have reached a point where children in Greece 
are coming to school hungry. Today, families have difficulties not only 
of employment, but of survival.”

The Greek economy is in free-fall, having shrunk by 20 percent in the 
past five years. Unemployment is more than 27 percent, the highest in 
Europe, and 6 of 10 job seekers say they have not worked in more than a 
year. Those dry statistics are reshaping the lives of Greek families 
with children, more of whom are arriving at schools hungry or underfed, 
even malnourished, according to private groups and the government itself.

Last year, an estimated 10 percent of Greek elementary- and 
middle-school students suffered from what public health professionals 
call “food insecurity,” meaning they faced hunger or the risk of it, 
said Dr. Athena Linos, a professor at the University of Athens Medical 
School who also heads a food assistance program at Prolepsis, a 
nongovernmental public health group that has studied the situation. 
“When it comes to food insecurity, Greece has now fallen to the level of 
some African countries,” she said.

Unlike those in the United States, Greek schools do not offer subsidized 
cafeteria lunches. Students bring their own food or buy items from a 
canteen. The cost has become insurmountable for some families with 
little or no income. Their troubles have been compounded by new 
austerity measures demanded by Greece’s creditors, including higher 
electricity taxes and cuts in subsidies for large families. As a result, 
parents without work are seeing their savings and benefits rapidly 
disappear.

“All around me I hear kids saying: ‘My parents don’t have any money. We 
don’t know what we are going to do,’ ” said Evangelia Karakaxa, a 
vivacious 15-year-old at the No. 9 junior high school in Acharnes.

Acharnes, a working-class town among the mountains of Attica, was 
bustling with activity from imports until the economic crisis wiped out 
thousands of factory jobs.

Now, several of Evangelia’s classmates are frequently hungry, she said, 
and one boy recently fainted. Some children were starting to steal for 
food, she added. While she did not excuse it, she understood their 
plight. “Those who are well fed will never understand those who are 
not,” she said.

“Our dreams are crushed,” added Evangelia, whose parents are unemployed 
but who is not in the same dire situation as her peers. She paused, then 
continued in a low voice. “They say that when you drown, your life 
flashes before your eyes. My sense is that in Greece, we are drowning on 
dry land.”

Alexandra Perri, who works at the school, said that at least 60 of the 
280 students suffered from malnutrition. Children who once boasted of 
sweets and meat now talk of eating boiled macaroni, lentils, rice or 
potatoes. “The cheapest stuff,” Ms. Perri said.

This year the number of malnutrition cases jumped. “A year ago, it 
wasn’t like this,” Ms. Perri, said, fighting back tears. “What’s 
frightening is the speed at which it is happening.”

The government, which initially dismissed the reports as exaggerations, 
recently acknowledged that it needed to “tackle the issue of 
malnutrition in schools.” But with priorities placed on repaying bailout 
funds, there is little money in Greek coffers to cope.

Mr. Nikas, the principal, said he knew the Greek government was laboring 
to fix the economy. Now that talk of Greece’s exiting the euro zone has 
disappeared, things look better to the outside world. “But tell that to 
the family of Pantelis,” he said. “They don’t feel the improvement in 
their lives.”

In the family’s darkened apartment near the school, Themelina Petrakis, 
Pantelis’s mother, opened her refrigerator and cupboards one recent 
weekend. Inside was little more than a few bottles of ketchup and other 
condiments, some macaroni and leftovers from a meal she had gotten from 
the town hall.

The family was doing well and was even helping others in need until last 
year. It was able to afford a spacious apartment with a flat-screen TV 
and a PlayStation.

Then her husband, Michalis, 41, was laid off from his shipping job in 
December. He said the company had not paid his wages for five months 
before that. The couple could no longer afford rent, and by February 
they had run out of money.

“When the principal called, I had to tell him, ‘We don’t have food,’ ” 
said Ms. Petrakis, 36, cradling Pantelis’s head as he cast his eyes to 
the ground.

Mr. Petrakis said he felt emasculated after repeatedly failing to find 
new work. When food for the family ran low, he stopped eating almost 
entirely, and rapidly lost weight.

“When I was working last summer, I even threw away excess bread,” he 
said, tears streaming down his face. “Now, I sit here with a war running 
through my head, trying to figure out how we will live.”

When the hunger comes, Ms. Petrakis has a solution. “It’s simple,” she 
said. “You get hungry, you get dizzy and you sleep it off.”

A 2012 Unicef report showed that among the poorest Greek households with 
children, more than 26 percent had an “economically weak diet.” The 
phenomenon has hit immigrants hardest but is spreading quickly among 
Greeks in urban areas where one or both parents are effectively 
permanently unemployed.

In rural areas, people can at least grow food. But that is not enough to 
eradicate the problem. An hour’s drive northwest of Athens, in the 
industrial town of Asproprigos, Nicos Tsoufar, 42, stared vacantly ahead 
as he sat in the middle school that his three children attend. The 
school receives lunches from a program run by Prolepsis, the public 
health group. Mr. Tsoufar said his children desperately needed the meals.

He has not found work for three years. Now, he said, his family is 
living on what he called “a cabbage-based diet,” which it supplements by 
foraging for snails in nearby fields. “I know you can’t cover 
nutritional basics with cabbage,” he said bitterly. “But there’s no 
alternative.”

The government and groups like Prolepsis are doing what they can. Last 
year, Prolepsis started a pilot program providing a sandwich, fruit and 
milk at 34 public schools where more than half of the 6,400 families 
participating said they had experienced “medium to serious hunger.”

After the program, that percentage dropped to 41 percent. Financed by an 
$8 million grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, an international 
philanthropic organization, the program was expanded this year to cover 
20,000 children at 120 schools.

Konstantinos Arvanitopoulos, Greece’s education minister, said the 
government had secured European Union financing to provide fruit and 
milk in schools, and vouchers for bread and cheese. It is also working 
with the Greek Orthodox Church to provide thousands of care packages. 
“It is the least we can do in this difficult financial circumstance,” he 
said.

Mr. Nikas, the principal at 11-year-old Pantelis’s school, has taken 
matters into his own hands and is organizing food drives at the school. 
He is angry at what he sees as broader neglect of Greece’s troubles by 
Europe.

“I’m not saying we should just wait for others to help us,” he said. 
“But unless the European Union acts like this school, where families 
help other families because we’re one big family, we’re done for.”

Dimitris Bounias contributed reporting.




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