The first time I travelled to Western Europe in the 1980s, I was surprised by – among other things – the fact that fruits and vegetables looked so beautiful and at the same time they were tasteless. Their shape was geometrically perfect and their colour as if painters had been engaged in their making. After some years in the then European Community, Greek vegetables improved in shape and colour but lost their taste. Gone were the days one could smell a funny shaped cucumber from meters away. Today most cucumbers are as if they are industrial products. Seasonal fruits and vegetables are ‘seasonless’ thanks to green houses, with less taste and of course at a much higher price.
A food culture being lost
After almost 30 years of Greece’s participation in the European Union, Greece is no longer an agricultural country. Greece depends on food imports. One can find in Greece lemons from Argentina, onions from Egypt and oranges from Morocco. At the same time one can observe everywhere in Athens and other cities lemon trees full of unpicked lemons. While the infamous Mediterranean diet ‘conquered’ the world it was abandoned by Greeks. Just to get an idea, Greek children were until very recently second in the world in child obesity while US children won the ‘gold medal’.
The on-going crisis though seems to have altered the food landscape and eating habits in the country. With an unemployment rate of more than 30% and more than 400,000 children living in poverty, issues related to food have taken a place of acute importance in everyday life. The ‘new poor’ in Greece are multiplying day by day. One should not be overcome with a feeling of hopelessness as initiatives to counterbalance this situation are also expanding. Family and community ties are re-established and strengthened while a sense of solidarity is gaining momentum.
The response from the community
Non-for-profit organisations aimed at providing food to the needy are mushrooming. Boroume, meaning “we can”, has brought together more than 200 companies that supply food, 25 hotels and 650 volunteers. Food that would be thrown out, either because it is not fresh enough for particular customers or because of the proximity of their expiration date, is supplied to people with immediate need. Boroume today helps today up to 6,000 people in Athens with approximately 5,000 portions of food on a weekly basis. “Boroume” collaborates with municipalities, schools and a number of foundations that help the needy.
The ‘new poor’ in Greece are multiplying day by day. One should not be overcome with a feeling of hopelessness as initiatives to counterbalance this situation are also expanding.
A well-known TV and radio station has brought together most of Greece’s supermarkets and the wide network of the Greek Orthodox Church in having customers donate food, medicines and even toys. As customers approach the exit of their supermarket, they are asked to donate part of what they just purchased. So far approximately 1,700,000 kilos of food have been donated through this initiative. The Athens Archdiocese which involves about 3,000 volunteers supplies over 10,000 portions of food on a daily basis to the needy, regardless of faith or national background.
The so-called “Social groceries” are opening one after the other, operated by Municipalities, Churches, NGOs, political organisations and various activists’ groups. Single parent families, the unemployed, the elderly, pensioners who saw their pensions disappear are among the beneficiaries of such initiatives.
Bring Greeks closer to the land
In a similar fashion, urban farming is becoming fashionable nowadays in Athens. Abandoned pieces of land in the greater area of the capital are being used by neighbours and friends who plant and care for their seasonal vegetables. Traditional Greek seeds are usually offered for free by relevant initiatives while at the same time elders’ ‘farming knowledge’ is becoming popular once again. More and more people are aware of local seeds, organic agriculture and the need to do away with pesticides and chemical overdose.
This message serves as a response to the preachers of neo-liberalism who thought that the “free market” will do its job. Well, they should have known better.
Supporting the local economy
Last but not least, there is a clear tendency towards the ‘renationalisation’ of food preferences. Greek flags proudly appear on the packages of many ‘made in Greece’ products. Buying Greek translates for many compatriots as ‘keeping jobs alive’ and ‘helping the Greek economy’. This process of ‘renationalisation’ comes together with feelings of indifference if not animosity towards products from abroad and especially from ‘our donors’. Gone are the days of the outward-looking and rather cosmopolitan attitude of Greek customers in their food preferences. The vast majority responds to the orchestrated singling out by behaving as a… “singled out”. The emphasis in the traditional “Greek salad” is on the Greek part of it!
Poverty stricken Greece is on the one hand rejecting the cure while it is reacting to austerity. We all now know that nothing will look like yesterday in Greece and that does not only apply to the PIGS’ zone. The days of plenitude and consumerism have given way to calls for the “daily bread”. There is a story from antiquity that talks about a man who was drowning. While he was sinking he was calling goddess Athena for her divine help. A by-passer saw him, stopped and responded to his calls by saying “while asking for Athena’s help, move your hands”. In today’s Greece, we now know that we have to move our hands and swim. And slowly but steadily we are doing it.