Greek crisis prompts a rethink on food waste

Greek crisis prompts a rethink on food waste

With little end to their economic misery in sight, Greeks are finding inventive ways to feed the poor while also fighting waste – a movement that is chipping away at traditional attitudes to food.

Three years ago, Xenia Papastavrou came up with a simple idea: take unsold food from shops and restaurants that was headed for the bin, and use it to feed the growing number of Greeks going hungry as the financial crisis took hold.

"In June, they gave us 3,000 kilos of melons; in August we got 7,200 cartons of milk," the 39-year-old told AFP at her office behind Athens' central market.

Boroume ("We Can"), the organization she founded, matches donated foodstuffs with charities in need — whether vegetables, bread or "even these 12 tiropita (cheese pies), which weren't sold at the bakery."

These days the food routed through Boroume provides an average of 2,500 meals a day across Greece, from Athens to Thessaloniki in the north.

"Greece is a country that throws a lot away," explained Papastavrou from behind a computer screen covered with data tables and the addresses of charities.

In Greek tavernas, if the plates aren't piled with huge pyramids of food, a meal between friends can be considered a failure, she added.

"There isn't really a mentality of paying attention to this," she said. "Here, it's: 'I've paid for it, so I can do what I want with it.'"

But years of hardship have started to change habits in a country where official figures show a quarter of the population is at risk of poverty.

"In Greece, people used to think that good quality means high prices," said Tonia Katerini, an architect who spends about 10 hours a week working in the Sesoula co-operative grocery store in Exarchia, downtown Athens.

But as Greece slumped into a deep six-year recession after the 2008 financial crisis erupted, people began thinking harder about whether this was really true, she said.

'Potato movement'

The rice, lentils and olive oil on the shelves at the grocery are "on average 10 to 15 percent cheaper than in the supermarket," said Katerini.

To achieve this, the grocery — like the 11 other cooperatives of its kind that have sprung up in Athens in recent years — skips the middlemen and negotiates directly with producers.

The idea was born three years ago with the rise of Greece's so-called "potato movement." Unhappy with the profits that wholesalers were making at their own expense, farmers began selling straight to the customers, offering sacks of potatoes from the backs of their trucks.

The result: bigger profits for the farmers, and lower prices for families trying to scrape together dinners as unemployment soared.

"This crisis has forced us to end the 'each man for himself' mentality, to look at what we can do together to get ourselves out of this mess," said Katerini.

With the government forced to implement huge spending cuts in exchange for two international bailouts since 2010, families are bearing the brunt of supporting the quarter of the population who are unemployed.

But families cannot cope on their own, Katerini and Papastavrou both say.

At a time when parents' pensions are being cut as part of a huge third international financial rescue, and with many families having used up the savings they had put aside for a rainy day, society must step in, Katerini said.

As Greece's third bailout plan begins, the queues at soup kitchens have grown longer. Many visitors are elderly, but increasingly, mothers are among those in line.
Some, hoping to shield their children from the grim reality, arrive with casserole dishes in their hands "to make their kids believe they made the meals themselves," said Papastavrou.

Six years ago, 80 people came regularly to the soup kitchen in Athens' middle class Zografou neighbourhood. Today, there are 500.

"So you see how important it is for us to help each other," said Papastavrou.


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