food collector

food collector

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Food in a European Capital

Posted on January 11, 2019 in Uncategorized

Some time ago, I drove to Piraeus (the port area of Athens) for an errand. I was lucky enough to find a proper parking space outside a super-market and was marveling, upon returning to my car, how a bureaucratic task had just finished quickly and painlessly. As I was starting the car off, I noticed a rather unusual sight in front of me. An old lady was in a manual fight with the rubbish collectors. It took me a while to figure it out, but she was fiercely defending what, for her, was a treasure: the rubbish bin outside the supermarket. They were just not going to empty it to the garbage truck, this was just not going to happen! In the end, the garbage collectors gave up, shrugged their shoulders and left.

I switched my engine off and watched. The old lady, searched the big bin, took out the dirty plastic bags and started carefully arranging and aligning the loose, discarded greasy slices of salami and ham from the filthy rubbish bag to her own plastic bag. One by one, with her bare hands, on the street, she straightened them and piled them neatly one on top of the other, like a little girl does with her favourite doll’s clothes.

It took me a few minutes to recover and, in the end, I plucked some money and I plucked some courage and got out of the car, to talk to her. All I could say was, “Hello, please better take this money, it’s not good consuming this meat, it is very hot lately, meat goes off easily and who knows how many days this has been out” (as if she didn’t know, but i didn’t know what else to say either! And indeed, the weather had been very hot, and no one knows how long this meat had been expired, or out of the fridge). The lady turned around. She was not dirty. She was not homeless. She was not mad. She was not drunk. She was not mentally unstable. She was a perfectly ordinary looking old lady. She replied to me, her sad serious eyes looking straight into mine: “Thank you my girl. I wish you from the depths of my heart to never ever experience poverty in your life”. She took the money and totally unhindered by my presence, she continued the sorting of her treasure.

Completely void of words now, I stood there for a while longer and then left. All my excitement about the victory over bureaucracy had evaporated. This was much more serious.

Later in the day, I talked to a social worker friend and she explained more to me. In Athens, at the moment, there are many pensioners who are very poor. Many own their own small flats, as it has been the tradition here. Their 300 Euro pensions are barely enough for them to pay electricity, medication, other bills and perhaps medical expenses. And some have rent to pay also. The money is not enough for food…

Food. Food has become worryingly expensive in the city. The pensioners know how to move about. They know what times during the day the supermarkets discard the expired products and they wait around in the corners to take them. From the bin, if necessary. My friend had seen something similar, outside another supermarket: Six o clock in the morning, the supermarket would leave expired milk cases outside and the milk manufacturer’s lorry would come and collect them (probably to convert the expired milk into deserts, creams, powder milk, cakes and all sorts of processed things that we eat…). But the pensioners would wait around the corner and get the expired milk first! The answer of the super market was to establish a security guard for the treasured expired milk. So now, the pensioners would have to think anew.

Would a visitor to Athens see such things, on his visit around Acropolis? Very probably not. Are there any restaurants in Athens, which throw away buckets of food? Yes, though they get less and less. Are there households, which throw away buckets of food? Yes, though, they too become fewer and fewer. Do these pensioners have other options, like homeless shelters or free meals for the poor? Homeless shelters are very few and totally packed. There is not such a thing here, as a homeless person out of choice (because, for example, he doesn’t want to give up drinking etc). A homeless person here is homeless simply because he has nowhere to go (leaving the huge heroin addicts population aside). Free meals for the poor are given in some areas, almost exclusively organized by the citizens themselves. Many churches also give, quietly and with care. But they are not enough. Often these meals distribution center points may be too far for the pensioners to reach. Often, they do not know about them. But also, they are not enough…

But it is not just pensioners. Charity meals were introduced some time ago to help the 25000 per year illegal immigrants and asylum seekers from the Middle East, who, in their search for a better life in a prosperous European country (not Greece), cross the border through Turkey and then get trapped here, since other EU countries won’t take accept them. There are thousands of them now and in a desperate condition. Now, Greeks are joining them in the queues for food.

Food.

Food will be increasingly the issue. There is the financial crisis of course…but money cannot be eaten.

In the midst of this, the light is working its wonderful ways…

Two architects (architects, not social workers, not aid workers, not psychologists, not state workers, just two conscious benevolent caring citizens) had this idea, which developed into a very successful program: They networked with bakery shops of their neighborhood and agreed with the bakery-owners, that the unsold bread of each day would be kept in the fridge until the end of the week. During the weekend, a volunteer of the project would come and collect it and transport it to the meals distribution points. This bread is not off, but it is not fresh enough to be sold either. Yet it is perfectly edible. Many bakery owners responded enthusiastically to the initiative, and were very pleased that they had the chance to contribute to helping others. Some would do an extra spinach pie, an extra cheese pie, or sweet, to give away, as they were making for their customers. Some explained the idea to their customers, who added to the initiative further, by offering other goods too, like clothes, blankets, conserved food etc. The project does not involve exchange of money, but goods- hand to hand, through a network of citizens… Trust has been established between the bakery owners and the project members. This personal trust was achieved as the bakery owners saw the project’s good work. Then, new members took the idea forward to their own suburbs and networked with bakery shops there.

Then, the project expanded from bakery shops to street food markets, flea markets. Luckily, there are many street food markets operating in Athens today, where farmers from surrounding counties (about one or two hours drive), come and sell their produce (mostly fruit and vegetable) once a week. This food is local and much cheaper than the insanely expensive vegetables one finds in supermarkets (I get particularly irritated with the madness of international trade, when I see “Lemons from Argentina” in our supermarkets… The streets of Athens itself are full of healthy lemon trees, bowing down heavy with fruit!). So, the project members agreed with the farmers, to come at the end of the street market’s operation and collect any unsold or loose product, which would otherwise be thrown away. The result is that over a ton of product is collected each time, which is then transported also to meals center points. The farmers liked the idea and were pleased to have the chance to help.

Additionally, project members arranged with local councils, wherever there is the capacity for this, to be given free access to appropriate municipal buildings, which have a basic kitchen facility. There, meals distributions are organized by volunteers, but also they invite the receivers to join and cook the food themselves. This mobilizes the beneficiaries, helping them be more active participants in a caring community, meet and talk to each other, rather than be isolated, passive receivers of a bowl of food.

Another project involves middle-aged and elderly Greek housewives, who are in a rather better financial position, to cook for the poor and homeless. Greek housewives in their 60s and 70s are almost invariably amazing cooks (I can guarantee this!), but, quite often, they do not drive. So, volunteers arranged to drive past their homes, collect the freshly cooked food and transport it to the meals distribution points. Many of these women are very keen to give, but so far they didn’t know how or to whom. What is most important is that this food is cooked with love… The receiver receives the love, along with the food also…

There are some very important points in this newly emerging situation…

I know that there are many good practices from international experience about feeding a population during crisis, famines and emergencies, but this situation cannot be declared under any of these names. What may be totally new about this situation is that it involves real hunger in a European capital of the post-war WESTERN block… so-called developed country…

What is also important is that FOOD, not money, but FOOD, locally produced FOOD, is being managed and distributed, among the local people themselves.

The community is being contacted, activated and organized. Local bakeries to their customers. Local churches. Local housewives. Local street markets. There are many people who are willing to give, but, so far, it has all been managed centrally by a dysfunctional state (which is now collapsing) and many of its NGOs were accused of money mismanagement and corruption. People lost trust. This type of direct involvement is much more positive I feel, than just asking people to passively give their money, trusting it blindly and then having no idea or involvement on what happens with it.

On a more personal note, when I talked to these architects, ordinary working people, low profile, totally selfless in their giving, totally innovative and genuine in their approach, my heart sang with joy and optimism…With people like this, I am not afraid of any crisis…