Leonidas Nikas is an elementary school principal in Greece. Recently, he has noticed something he wholeheartedly thought was impossible in his country — children bent over in hunger pains; children pleading to each other for food; children scouring trash cans for anything edible. “Not in my wildest dreams would I expect to see the situation […]
Leonidas Nikas is an elementary school principal in Greece. Recently, he has noticed something he wholeheartedly thought was impossible in his country — children bent over in hunger pains; children pleading to each other for food; children scouring trash cans for anything edible. “Not in my wildest dreams would I expect to see the situation we are in,” Nikas told The New York Times. “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.”
Nikas is not alone in his concern. Victoria Prekate, a secondary school teacher and psychologist in Athens, told The Guardian:
“It has been a common secret among PE [physical education] teachers for some time now that they don’t expect pupils to do PE anymore, because many of them are underfed and get dizzy. They need to be discreet, as these underprivileged children don’t wish to be exposed to their peers. In my previous school, the teachers arranged among themselves to give the school canteen some money, so that the canteen could give the child a snack, without embarrassing the child.”
“However, this was not enough,” Prekate continued.
“In many schools today, it is the parents’ associations who come together, gather food and discreetly arrange to allocate it to those families of the school who are suffering. In cooperation with the teachers, they know which children in the school are hungry and in need of help. Again, they try to do it as discreetly as possible. Many families, suddenly left without work, are in shock and there is nowhere to turn. Social services are collapsing. They are not professional beggars. They are ordinary people like you and me, suddenly left with nothing. I know one area, where schools have specialised in what they gather: 1st primary school gather rice and legumes, 2nd vegetables, 3rd meat and chicken etc.”
Greece, however, is not alone among nations in having hungry children.
Childhood hunger in the U.S.
It might seem ridiculous to think that history’s wealthiest nation has hungry children, but in the U.S., 10.6 million children who are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — the principal component of the nation’s domestic hunger safety net — are denied access. Nationwide, one in six individuals faces hunger, with 20.6 percent of all households reporting having children facing food insecurity. This is more than twice the rate of what Greece faces. As of 2011, 17.9 million Americans were food insecure.
Also, 50.1 million Americans struggle to put food on their tables. Among Black and Latino children, one in three is hungry. The District of Columbia, which is predominantly Black, has a food insecurity rate of 30.7 percent. Arizona has a rate of 29 percent, Oregon 29 percent, Florida 28.4 percent, Mississippi 28.3 percent, Texas 27.1 percent, California 26.8 percent. This is, by any definition, a national tragedy.
It is estimated that a family must have an income at least twice the federal poverty level to cover all basic expenses. Based on this standard and on U.S. Census information, 45 percent of all American families do not have the income to adequately feed and provide for themselves.
Yes, that’s 45 percent
While it can (and should) be argued that the hunger problem is a facet of poor governmental decision-making, one must consider that 40 percent of the food grown and produced in the U.S. is thrown away. That’s approximately $165 billion in food that is discarded every year. This food could feed an estimated 25 million people.
Children go to school hungry, cannot learn as effectively as they would with a full stomach, and fall behind. The nation is facing a precipice in which it cannot adequately provide for and train the next generation. According to Share Our Strength, three out of five teachers attest to regularly seeing children arrive to their classrooms hungry, and four in five attest to seeing children arrive to school hungry at least once a week.
President Obama has resolved to eliminate childhood hunger by 2015, but remedial actions — such as raising the federal minimum wage — are continually rejected by congressional Republicans. Corporate initiatives such as Share Our Strength and nonprofits such as Feeding America are making a difference in resolving this epidemic, but the major fact of the matter remains: There has been no debt crisis to justify why the U.S. allowed hunger levels among American children to eclipse that of the Third World. Only through decisive corrective action and bold leadership will this problem be solved.
“Drowning on dry land”
The difference between Greece’s hunger problem and America’s hunger problem lies in the fact that Greece doesn’t have the money to fix the problem. Greece is facing imminent financial collapse. Crippled by massive debt and driven to the brink of insolubility by radical austerity policies, Greece, whose economy was based largely on social initiatives, government spending and tourism — and whose austerity initiatives and subsequent intense protests all but eliminated any possible growth — is now faced with 27 percent unemployment. To put this in perspective, Greece’s unemployment is higher now than the United States’ unemployment rate was during the 1930s Great Depression.
Greece, as of 2011, had government debt in excess of 170.6 percent of its gross domestic product. There are reports of massive abuse of tax rolls, and many businesses and individuals choosing not to pay their assessed taxes in part due to a government that is unable to enforce its own tax laws. Yanis Varoufakis, a Greek economist, wrote of the situation,
“The Greek economy is finished. The Greek economy is in a great, great depression … There is no power, no force within the Greek economy, within Greek society that can avert it … Imagine if we were in Ohio in 1931 and we were to ask: What can Ohio politicians do to get Ohio out of the Great Depression? The answer is nothing.”
In 2012, about 10 percent of all Greek elementary and middle school students suffered from “food insecurity,” which means that the children was hungry or was in danger of becoming hungry. “When it comes to food insecurity, Greece has now fallen to the level of some African countries,” said Dr. Athena Linos, a professor at the University of Athens Medical School who also heads a food assistance program at Prolepsis, a non-governmental public health group that has studied the situation.
Unlike the U.S., Greece has no school nutrition programs. Parents are required to either send children to school with a prepared lunch or with money to buy food from the canteen. Due to further austerity measures, such as higher electricity taxes and subsidy cuts to large families, many children must go to school with nothing to eat.
“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 15-year-old at the No. 9 junior high school in Acharnes. “Our dreams are crushed.”
Evangelia’s parents are unemployed but she says she’s not in the same dire situation as her peers. “They say that when you drown, your life flashes before your eyes. My sense is that in Greece, we are drowning on dry land.”
A 2012 United Nations’ International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) report indicates that among the poorest Greek household with children, more than 26 percent eat an “economically weak diet.” This is a phenomenon that typically hits the immigrant community the hardest, but has been recently affecting the urban permanently unemployed. Rural residents can, at least, mitigate the problem by growing food.