Europe’s Poor Ask for Food Aid as Crisis Bites

Escalating numbers of Europeans now rely on food aid according to the Red Cross, which says failing welfare services and high unemployment mean nobody knows who may need to ask for help next.

Europe’s Poor Ask for Food Aid as Crisis Bites

"It is not just Eastern or Southern Europe; it is across the European Union, people in Luxembourg and Finland... Public support services begin to fail and people run out of all support mechanisms, so they come to the church or the Red Cross," said Eberhard Lueder, who heads the Red Cross's European Union unit.

"Nowadays, nobody knows who is going to be hit next… Many people who would have considered themselves safe — middle class — find themselves in a situation where they cannot finance their own needs."

Roughly 40 million Europeans are suffering "severe material deprivation" according to data from the European Commission, with the same number unable to afford a meal with meat every second day. In total, 116 million EU citizens are judged "at risk of poverty or social exclusion."

"There is definitely a lack of awareness of the number of people who cannot afford to have a proper meal every day. In most countries, what we consider to be poverty is quite hidden, although that is beginning to change in some countries which are hit hard by the crisis," said Lueder.

Food aid projects are operated across Europe by charities, welfare organizations and religious groups, and take different forms. In high-density cities in Austria and Germany for instance, groups collect goods nearing expiry from supermarkets and then sell them for a token fee. In Belgium and France, there are shops where people can buy food (and clothing) for heavily reduced prices.

Jorge Nuno Mayer, the secretary general of Caritas Europa, a Catholic welfare charity, said people turn to food aid when difficulties in paying for utilities such as housing, water and electricity, mean they have no money left for food purchases.

"The information we are getting from Caritas organizations all over Europe shows that more and more people are asking for food aid. The main reasons are increasing unemployment and long-term unemployment, increasing in-work poverty, and austerity measures that affect social protection schemes," Mayer said.

Core vs. Periphery?

The European Union currently funds a 500 million euro food aid program, from which 18 million people in 19 member states benefit. However, this will be cut in 2014 to 335 million euros, and is only guaranteed to continue for a further seven years afterwards.

"This is a 30 percent cut, when more member states are applying each year to answer the basic needs of their citizens," Aude Alston, the secretary general of the European Federation of Food Banks, wrote in a press release in response to the news. "The European food aid program is more needed than ever."

Welfare organizations agree that those countries worst hit by Europe's economic crisis— peripheral Europe (Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy), the Baltic States and Eastern Europe — are those most in need of food aid programs.

One country hard hit is Spain, where unemployment reached 24.6 percent in the second quarter. This October, the Spanish Red Cross launched its first-ever appeal to support impoverished Spaniards, with previous fundraising drives always targeted at Third World countries.

"Our members in Spain identify both migrants and Spanish-born nationals as requesting food aid, and they also see a large number of homeless people looking to access food aid," said Heather Roy, secretary general of Eurodiaconia, a federation of European Christian welfare groups.

Meanwhile, organizations also notice increasing numbers of people asking for handouts in "core" European countries, such as France.

"France used to have a really good system of social benefits for everybody, but the government system has an increasing number of gaps which people fall through, and that puts them in serious difficulties. Welfare organizations then increasing feel the pressure," said Lueder.

Across Europe, elderly people and families with children are often most likely to fall into poverty.

"Our Italian Red Cross says one of the biggest groups asking for food aid is pensioners with minimal income. They ask family and neighbors, but they also go to the Red Cross. They cannot compensate by taking another job," said Lueder.

"Elderly people, and those with low or no income, low qualifications, or no job, were already affected before the crisis," added Mayer. "Most affected among the 'new poor' are large families and single-parent families with low or no income, so children are in our focus of concern."

Mayer is pessimistic the situation will improve in 2013, while one-third of Eurodiaconia member organizations forecast increasing demand for food aid next year.

Roy warned however that European governments should not rely on food aid programs as a solution to increased poverty. "It does meet short-term emergency needs, but these are needs that in Europe should be met through adequate social protection systems and social welfare transfers, alongside adequate salaries," she said.

— By's Katy Barnato