Are Greek children really starving? It depends on who’s reporting.

As this is a blog about the Greek diet, it’s time we talk about an issue that has been in the headlines lately; the financial situation and child hunger in Greece. What is really going on?

Maria Paravantes, journalist, sociologist and international media consultant clarifies the situation.

As Orthodox Easter approaches all the more media reports are casting the spotlight on Greece, using its economic woes to create stories and many times hype about everything from rising crime and destroyed families to cut funds for science and lack of medications. Add the recent suicide of a Greek pensioner in front of the parliament building and the tragedy begins to take very real dimensions.

One of the issues that attracts attention and yields readership has to do with food or rather lack of. In a country and culture with a cuisine dating back thousands of years, writers, journalists, specialists and all kinds of pundits have spoken up about the “starving children” of Greece who are at best fainting in grade schools across the country or in the worst case scenarios rummaging through the garbage in efforts of find an edible scrap for their swollen tummies. Indeed these Dickensian characters do work wonders in arousing pity among the respected readers of the world, (as well as keeping away potential visitors), but they all have one thing in common: the thread between reality and sensationalism is extremely thin… so thin that all perspective is lost. A blaring example of intentional and selective misreporting? A recent UNICEF report “cited” throughout the press, who chose to claim that there are over 400,000 hungry children in Greece.

It is without a doubt that there are people (and children) in Greece, as there are in every country of this world, who are suffering. According to UNICEF’s findings (this very same report), newspapers inexplicably “forgot” to report on the fact that Europe’s “powerhouses”, the EU’s richest states – France and Germany (yes, you read correctly) – demonstrate the highest increases in child poverty rates, while that of Greece remains steady since 1995. Where was this piece of information? Lost in translation?

Using buzzwords (and SEO- friendly terms) such as “poverty stricken”, “starving”, “humanitarian crisis”, “famine”, “abandonment” etc does more than describe the real situation, it misleads and instills social behavior.

A phrase I remember hearing in my childhood days from my grandparents and today by my neighbors and friends is closer to home: “panta tha yparhei ena piato fai” (there will always be a plate of food). This is closer to Greece’s current reality than the “humanitarian crisis” so vividly and frequently described. In the villages and small communities across the country there is always someone willing to offer a plate of food to his neighbor or even a stranger, whether this is a family, a shop owner, a priest or even an unguarded orange orchard or olive grove. Only recently I admired a middle-aged couple that was picking olives off a “public” tree in my central Athens neighborhood. This would never be possible in the US or Brussels, for instance. This simplicity and compassion is what made Greece so different compared to other European cultures, and has kept Greeks alive in terribly trying times.

Yes, there may be hunger and there may be published figures and statistics but these numbers – isolated from the whole – fail to focus (and mention) on other factors such as the fact that many of the people at “poverty level” are illegal immigrants, 400 of which enter Greece’s borders a day, without work, without papers, without health standards, without a place to live. Many of these statistics – or should I say journalists, reporters, specialists – fail to correlate (the true essence of sociology) factors such as negligence and ignorance, and immediately rush to misleading and sensationalist public assumptions. In my days as a sociology student, I remember my professors’ insistence on one thing: correlation – for a truer, more objective conclusion.

I will use the words of highly respected psychologist and therapist Father Filotheos, who at 82 has the following word of advice:
“To live man needs very few things. Only recently I was at the central market and was asked by a journalist what I had shopped, whether there was a difference in prices compared to last year and how the crisis had affected me. I said: ‘Look, I bought half kilo of carrots, half kilo of celery, two-three potatoes, and two zucchini with which I will cook up a wonderful soup for four. Healthy, tasty and it cost me 3 euros.”

Early last week, Father Filotheos referred to the traditional Greek cuisine full of pulses, fish and vegetables. This very cuisine, known as the Mediterranean Diet, has not only nourished the people of this country for centuries, it has been lauded for its health benefits and today cooked across the globe as a back-to-health choice.

So are we really speaking of starvation, or rather of ignorance, negligence or simple indolence? Greece still has among the lowest prices in fruits and vegetables in Europe. If one goes to the central Varvakeios market or even to the neighborhood street markets at the end of the day, most of the produce and fish are half price. You can easily feed a family of four with anchovies, sardines or “gopes” (bogue fish). You can offer a complete and nutritionally balanced breakfast – egg, glass of milk and an orange – to your child for less than a euro: the price of a nutrition-less, sugar-filled packaged croissant (which much to our surprise was being distributed at schools for breakfast!).

So perhaps it’s about time we got things straight. Yes, there are poor people in Greece. And the numbers are bound to grow, as Greece becomes more a part of the Western world and its individualist over-consuming reality. But hunger and starvation are for the time being extreme terms used to describe natural social phenomena, which should be seen in a spherical light and not as isolated instances. This not only makes for good reporting and objective analyzing but is the only way to find light at the end of the tunnel.

Maria Paravantes is a journalist, writer, sociologist and international media consultant for over 20 years. She is the past advisor on Foreign Press to the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs and to the Mayor of Athens. You can check out her latest project The Greek Vibe a site that specializes in Greek Music.

Photo Credit: Painting, Giorgos Iakovidis “Η αγαπημένη της γιαγιάς” (H agapimeni tis yiayias), 1893

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  1. OK guys – there’s a lot of dramatic stuff up there. First some clarification – I live in Athens and my husband and I volunteer at a free clinic. Are there people starving to death in Athens – no not so much – but the churches offer free lunches and are presently feeing 250,000 per day throughout the country. A system set up through the churches and some TV stations make it easy to buy food, leave it at the supermarket where it is picked up and used to feed those who would most definitely undernourished if this program hadn’t taken off a few years ago. Do we see underweight babies at the clinic? Yes, we used to. Parents were cutting infant formula by 6 times instead of 3 times in order to save money. We started taking contributions of infant formula and now supply it to more than 250 families. In short, the people themselves are coming together in solidarity with the people who need it. Times are bad. And that is when we come together

  2. Michele Castorina says:

    Greece needs help. People are starving and dying. There is not enough food. Instead of sending money to Africa we should help the greek people. I was in Athens last week…. I feel ashamed to be an Italian European.

  3. I suggest that journalists who want to be taken seriously stop assessing or judging a situation on the basis of their own quaint experiences, or on very limited ones. I live in Greece. I am not hungry nor do I know anyone who is.

    However, I would never make the claims Ms. Paraventes does, who seems to be deliberately downplaying events in Greece, which have very quickly transformed the country are collapsing the middle class.

    Claiming that child poverty is worse in other countries is neither here nor there to those whose children suffer from it. Also–to claim that child poverty rates in Greece have been stable since 2005 is completely false. Since 2009 onwards they have increased greatly during the crisis.

    The term “humanitarian crisis” is used by groups like Medecins du Monde, and not lightly, who have a much bigger, broader picture of what is happening. A humanitarian crisis involves several things beyond food by the way. And myth that this is affecting only immigrants, is just that a myth—one that people buy into less and less here, as more and more of their middle class friends are losing jobs, access to health services, homes and electricity.

    Here is what Medecins du Monde had to say in 2011 and things have gotten a lot worse since then:

    The humanitarian crisis in Greece is deepening, Medecins Du Monde is warning
    26 October 2011 / 20:10:42 GRReporter

    A call for help has make today the non-profit organization Medecines Du Monde, which is ringing the bell of the danger of an emerging and deepening humanitarian crisis in Greece in the coming winter months.

    According to the President of the organization Nikitas Kanakis, after the increase in the number of Greeks, who are visiting the health services of Medecines Du Monde in Athens, Thessaloniki Hania and Perama because of losing their jobs and therefore, the access to health services, as GRReporter wrote some time ago, now the great majority of them are threatened by food shortages.

    “In our conversations with these people, we were shocked by the fact that many of them are looking for food. They are making it in a very dignified manner, but the fact is that they are doing it. That is why we have decided to call on all who responded to our request last March to supply us their excess drugs. Now we would like to help us with foodstuffs.”

    These are basic foodstuffs like rice, pulses, pasta and oil. “We also need milk, baby food, diapers and other things for children. In a nutshell, we need things that will help these people keep their dignity. We do not want to see the number of people eating in free dining rooms to increase. Our goal is simple, yet very difficult: to make family packages for the poorest of our patients and to give these packages to them when they come. We will try to do it in the most delicate way, because many of these people have worked for more than 30 and 40 years and the fact that they are poor now does not mean that they differ from the patients who visit our hospital or private rooms.”

    Nikitas Kanakis particularly emphasized the problem of poor nutrition in children. “Children who have feeding problems are visiting us. I am not saying that they are malnourished because this term may seem somewhat excessive from a medical standpoint. In no case we see pictures like those of Africa. But it comes to children who eat when, if and whatever they find. When we are talking with these children we see the phrase “Mom, I’m hungry” that we thought it would be heard in Greece never again has come back. Many children are deprived of the most basic things. Their families are not able to help them and at the same time, there is no state institution to which they can turn for help. It is these children, among which there are Greek children, we should help.” Another problem concerning children is immunization. “We need money to buy children’s vaccines. What should be obvious and in other countries that the child has taken the basic vaccines, is not valid in Greece. Parents of many children have no health insurance and they have to buy the vaccines, but they cannot afford them, especially those that cost 70-80 euros. We do not want old and forgotten diseases to return today. Moreover, we consider vaccination as a fundamental right of these children.”

    Medecins Du Monde believe that when the number of people who every day eat in free dining-rooms in Athens has reached almost 14,000, the definition of “humanitarian crisis” should not be considered exaggerated. “These people are not the homeless and foreigners we remember from the past. These are all Greeks like us. More and more of them are seeking medical care and medicines by non-governmental organizations and more and more of them are digging in the waste to seek food. We want them to know that they can turn to us to help them even a little by listening to them, examining them and giving the first medication. I would like to say that if recently we all have been glad that we will help people in other countries such as Uganda, Tanzania and Turkey, to which a group will go soon, here in Greece we feel shame.”

    Yannis Mouzalas, one of the 600 physicians who provide their services voluntarily, told about the change in the orientation of the Greek branch of the organization. “Last year, we sent 5 or 6 containers of food to Uganda; the year before the last we sent containers to Iraq and Haiti, and four years ago – to Somalia. This year and it looks like in the coming years too, we need these containers here. For us, Greece now is like an expedition abroad. Foreign organizations come and want to cooperate in this cause, as we do when we go into another country. There is a humanitarian crisis already in Greece and I think now we are just at the tip of the iceberg.”

    According to Nikitas Kanakis, the affiliate network of Medecins Du Monde in Europe has already expressed their intentions to help and the members of the German branch have even sent medical equipment.

    The organization called on the Greek doctors to help and devote some of their spare time to the needy. “We need pediatricians, surgeons, gynecologists, and psychiatrists. Very often, women, who are bearing the greater burden of the crisis and need psychological support, turn to us for assistance.” The organization has already formed groups for mutual support involving poor and unemployed citizens.

    Medecins Du Monde have stressed on the fact that the inability of many Greeks to pay the electricity bill, which will include the extra property tax, would put them in a more difficult situation. “It is not my job to define the measure, but I think society would have to use all options to help these people. In most cases, we are talking about families of several generations living in one dwelling to reduce costs. Elderly parents support the families of their unemployed children with their low pensions. It would be really hard and pitiless these people to be left without electricity,” said in conclusion the President of Medecins Du Monde.

    1. maria. Zorbas says:

      I am retired, and visit Greece every year I have worked in thepast as a professional social worker and would gladly offer my services
      In any capacity your organization feels it is needed.I speak And read. Greek fluently plus English and french .Kindly contact me
      At above email
      Maria Zorba

  4. no one starves in the western world – they are all overfed

  5. I think she meant homeless, I live in SF and unfortunately there are many homeless in the city.

  6. Steve McQueen says:

    You’ve come across people starving in Chicago?
    I live in Chicago where the poor are living off the welfare state and get everything they need for free. No one is starving in Chicago so I don’t know where you saw people “STARVING TO DEATH.” Stop trying to be dramatic and be realistic.