United States Of Common Sense

The Hunger Line

Homeless Greek child
Homeless Greek child
Children are being dumped on Greece's streets by their poverty-stricken families who cannot afford to look after them any more. | Photo: Getty Images | Poverty, Greece, Hunger, Homeless, Art, Child,

The food crisis hits Europe.

Much of the United States has been suffering for months under drought conditions. The same has been true in key agricultural areas of Europe. The production of corn, soybeans and wheat is down dramatically worldwide, and the fears of hunger are escalating. Soaring corn, soybean, and wheat prices have caught the attention of governments around the world.

World food prices rose 10% in July, held steady in August and then climbed again by 1.4% September. A look at the rise in the price of crops most directly affected by the drought is even more disturbing. Corn prices, for instance, are up over 60% since June. Soybean prices are up by more than a third.

Most of the focus of concern regarding rising food prices is on the Third World. In the United States, families typically spend a relatively small portion of their income on food, and they have the capacity to absorb increases in food prices without feeling true pain. That is not true in the poorer nations of Africa and Asia where people often live on less than $2 a day and spend 50-70% of their income on food. Under these conditions, even a modest increase in food prices can mean disaster. In 2007-2008 similar declines in agricultural production and the rise in food prices that resulted triggered riots across the developing world.

But, this year for the first time in many decades a new front is opening in the war on hunger, one many, many miles from Sub-Saharan Africa or India. That front is in Europe.

In August in the Spanish town of Marinaleda, the mayor led raids on local supermarkets in order to acquire food to keep town residents alive. Groups of trade unionists, with the mayor at their fore, loaded dozens of shopping carts with food and rolled them out of the markets without paying. Crowds of local townspeople stood by and cheered. Poverty in Spain has risen 15% since 2007, and unemployment is at 25%.

Greek poverty
Greek poverty

An immigrant pushes an empty shopping trolley past graffiti in a poor Athens neighborhood. Poverty has visibly increased on the streets of the Greek capital with a population of four million people. | Photo: Reuters | Poverty, Greece, Hunger, Homeless, Art, Eye,

In the same Andalusia region of Spain where the supermarket raids occurred, protesters have occupied large estates and demanded the redistribution of land. Activists have also seized plots of unused land and began to plant vegetables to feed the hungry, justifying their actions with the slogan, "The land for those who work it", a slogan that dates back at least to the Spanish Civil War. Unemployment in Andalusia stands at 34%.

Throughout Spain the unemployed are increasingly turning to rummaging through garbage bins to find food to eat. The problem has become so severe in some areas that the authorities have taken to padlocking the bins as what they call a public health measure. Packs of Spaniards wait outside supermarkets in the evening to see what food will be discarded. The Catholic charity, Caritas, recently reported that it fed one million Spaniards in 2010, double the number it fed in 2007. That number increased by another 65,000 in 2011.

In Lisbon, Portugal, the Banco Alimentar Food Bank is the largest in Europe. It uses 12,000 tons of food a year to feed 150,000 people. That number has been steadily rising for the last three years straight. Even more ominously, the people coming to the Food Bank are no longer the usual vagrants or homeless people of years past. Increasingly they are middle class families who have lost their jobs and their homes in the deepening financial crisis.

Italy's National Institute of Statistics recently announced that over a third of Italians have had to cut spending on food. Dining out at restaurants is becoming increasingly less common. Old-fashioned foods not eaten widely for years are making a comeback. Local newsstands report that sales of glossy upscale magazines are declining and sales of magazines with titles like Cucina Economica (Economic Cooking) and Cucina della Nonna (Grandmother's Cooking) are increasing.

In Greece the far-right Golden Dawn Party has begun to exploit the growing food crisis by handing out food to desperate citizens. Several months ago it opened a charity shop on the fringes of Athens, which supplies food to those who can prove that they are of true "Greek blood". It has also staged food distribution events in front of the Parliament building in the capital city. Thousands of Greeks have lined up for these events, showing their national ID cards to prove their citizenship, and receiving in return parcels of milk, pasta, potatoes and olive oil.

In the Greek city of Perama, a once bustling shipbuilding town, large numbers of residents are dependent on the charity, Doctors of the World, not simply for medical care but for food as well. Increasingly, the clinic is treating children with tuberculosis, a disease once all but eradicated in Europe. Doctors of the World is a charity, which, up until recently, focused its work on Africa, Asia and South America.

In Athens, one in every eleven people eats regularly at a soup kitchen. The price of food continues to rise. Average disposable income has fallen by 50% in the last five years. The Orthodox Church feeds 250,000 people a day.

Major supermarket chains in Athens are so concerned about the situation that they are installing sophisticated automatic systems to prevent looting. When activated by supermarket staffs the systems are designed to close off all doors and windows with heavy metal shutters in an instant. Store employees are being trained in operation of the systems and prepared to deal with flash mobs.

Dimitris Christoulas
Dimitris Christoulas

Dimitris Christoulas is the 77 year old retired pharmacist who two days ago stood in front of the Greek Parliament building in downtown Athens and blew his brains out because he couldn't bear being reduced to foraging for food in garbage cans. | Photo: Archives |
In April of this year, Dimitris Christoulis, a 77-year-old retired pharmacist, stood in front of the Parliament building in Athens and shot himself. He left a suicide note, which read, "I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life so I don't find myself fishing through garbage cans for sustenance." A makeshift shrine now marks the spot where Dimitris stood.

We have for decades accepted Europe, particularly Western Europe, as stable, prosperous and expanding. World War II and the lean times that followed are ancient history. Europe is shiny, new and increasingly prosperous. Many Americans, particularly liberal Democrats, hold out European social welfare states, with their cradle to grave security, as models to be emulated.

That Europe, to the extent it ever really existed, is increasingly a thing of the past. This is not a momentary hiccup or a minor recession. What is unfolding in Europe is an economic disaster decades in the making. The nations of Southern Europe most affected have been sliding down hill in a sort of slow motion train wreck for years, and they are nowhere near the point where they will begin to turn things around. Conditions will worsen and the suffering of the people in these nations will increase.

All across the nations of Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece in particular, the unemployed and under-employed have drained their bank accounts, exhausted their benefits and been forced from their homes. Government austerity measures have cut off or dramatically reduced pensions. Public coffers have gone dry. What was a difficult period of belt tightening has begun to transform into life threatening poverty and hunger.

For years Non-Governmental organizations dedicated to work in the Third World have referred to the Hunger Line, a rough border south of which famine was a real threat. Traditionally, that line ran roughly on a latitude equivalent to the southern boundary of the Sahara desert in Africa. Above that line conditions might be bad, but south of that line people actually died, because they did not have enough to eat.

Where that line is today is a matter of conjecture, but there is no doubt that it is moving northward. We may soon define it not as running through the nations of Equatorial Africa but as running through the European capitals of Lisbon, Madrid, Rome and Athens.

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Updated May 6, 2017 5:59 AM EDT | More details

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