A New Occupation in Greece: Hunger
By Jon Gromeck
I recall my yiayia (Greek for "grandmother") telling me stories as a child of what it was like growing up in Greece under Axis occupation during World War II. Food was scarce; life was harsh.
Almost all the food that was grown and collected had to be given to the occupying soldiers, leaving very little for the villagers on the island. Many throughout Greece developed “starvation recipes” which were invented as ways to stay alive — grinding chickpeas when there was no ground coffee, collecting breadcrumbs in a jar to have something extra at the end of the week, and even hunting stray cats and dogs on the streets for food. Others, like my yiayia, took to breaking curfew at night and smuggling what food they could to the neediest of families, risking their lives while doing so. Time has passed, but in recent years a new occupation has taken hold in Greece, bringing about another wave of hunger and poverty among the country's poor and middle class: austerity.
I recently had a chance to travel back to Greece to visit family. I was prepared for a lot to have changed since my last visit six years ago, but was unprepared for what I saw and learned.
Traditional charities that have long helped families make ends meet, like food banks and soup kitchens, have been strained under austerity. Now, up to 90 percent of families in the poorest parts of Greece are dependent on food assistance to keep them afloat. According to the Greek Orthodox Church, faith-based ministries now feed an estimated 55,000 people a day in Athens alone and the need is still growing. My aunt and uncle, both public school teachers in Athens, told me of the all-too-often occurrence of children going to school hungry—some close to starving. UNICEF recently estimated that nearly 600,000 children (one in three) live under the poverty line in Greece and more than half that number lack basic daily nutritional needs.
In many ways, Greece’s attempts to get its fiscal house in order have been on the backs of hungry and poor people. We see in Greece what we know at Bread for the World: private charity cannot fill the gap in responding to the needs of those who are hungry. If cuts to SNAP take effect and the sequester continues, more and more families and children will go hungry and be robbed of opportunity—just like an entire generation in Greece.
When I reflect on what my yiayia risked her life and fought for in the dark of night those many years ago, it certainly was not this; it was for a world where all have enough and all are fed. Urge your members of Congress to protect SNAP and replace the sequester with a balanced approach. Congress needs to hear from you about the world you want to see for the next generation.
Jon Gromek is regional organizer, central hub, at Bread for the World.
Photo: Jon Gromek, with his yiayia, during a previous trip to Greece. Photo courtesy of Jon Gromek.