John Sparrow, in Budapest
Poor nutrition among Central European children is of growing concern to the Red Cross. While on World Food Day (October 16) international attention focuses on grave food shortages in the developing world, the nutritional consequence of poverty was highlighted in Central Europe.
Red Cross Societies in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia used World Food Day this year to warn of the inability of impoverished families across the region to feed their children properly. Reports of poorly fed children fainting at school, or showing other signs of undernourishment, are becoming commonplace, and in Poland alone some 1.5 million youngsters are said to be affected.
Surveys have indicated that as much as 30 per cent of Central Europe's population lives below the poverty line, and National Societies are reporting that, in pockets at least, the signs are of a worsening situation. Poland's Central Bureau of Statistics says 36.6 per cent (13.9 million people) live in bad or very bad conditions. Even relatively prosperous Slovenia has almost 15 per cent below the poverty line, and an ever growing gap between rich and poor. "The trend is towards two social classes," said Slovenian Red Cross Secretary General, Mirko Jelenic, "and the paradox is that on one side people are on never-ending diets while on the other people go hungry."
Since 1999, the Lodz branch of the Polish Red Cross has used World Food Day to raise funds to assist the poor, and to raise awareness of the hardship and vulnerability of so many within the community. Selling bread donated by local bakers from prominent points around the city, it has financed school lunch programmes and, with media support, driven home the seriousness of the situation. Last year, the Polish Red Cross made it a national event, and in 2001 the Poles were joined by Red Cross Youth in Slovenia and Slovakia.