Children go hungry in Central Europe

Published: 16 October 2002 0:00 CET

John Sparrow in Budapest

Ola is 14. Her arms and legs are as thin as sticks. Her mother, frail and drawn, cries as she freely admits she is unable to feed the child properly. Since she divorced her husband because he frequently beat them both, she has struggled to survive on the equivalent of $12 a month. She borrows money to pay for their flat and food, and falls ever more deeply into debt.

Ola is a bright girl whose school grades are As and Bs, but now her mother is afraid her nutritional state will soon start to affect her studies. Her health is already suffering and her only proper meals come from school breakfasts or lunches. Desperate, her mother looks for work to improve their situation but she has little chance. Unemployment in the country is increasing.

Ola's story might come from a failed state, or a troubled developing land. But it doesn't.

Her country is peaceful, full of food, and by 2004 will be ready to join the European Union. Ola lives in Poland and she is one of 2 million Polish children suffering undernourishment, mostly as a consequence of poverty.

Poland is not alone. Today, World Food Day, Red Cross National Societies from the Baltic to the Adriatic are warning that undernourishment among Central Europe's poor and socially vulnerable is symptomatic of a widening gap between rich and poor.

Between 20 and 30 per cent of Central Europe's 130 million people are thought to live below the poverty line. In some countries it is over 40 per cent.

The Red Cross Red Crescent global focus on Food Day is on the deepening crisis in southern Africa, where millions are threatened with starvation. There, one of the biggest food transport operations ever mounted by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is under way.

But on the streets of Albania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Red Cross Youth are also campaigning for people who are hungry at home.

Evidence from across the region points to the growing inability of the poor to feed themselves properly. Children and the elderly suffer most. Schools tell of pupils being listless and unwell for want of a decent meal. In these new free-market economies, many elderly struggle to make ends meet on minuscule pensions. They must adjust their diets to their purses.

Horrifying figures have emerged from Poland. State agencies say 500,000 more children are affected by undernourishment than they reported to the Red Cross last year. Almost 40 per cent of the population live in what are referred to as "bad or very bad conditions" and unemployment is rising.

"What that means is that 15,600,000 people are impoverished," said Scholastyka Sniegowska, secretary general of the Polish Red Cross. Escaping poverty isn't easy, she said. "Some 17.3 per cent of the working age population, or 2,980,000 Poles were jobless in June, a figure that has grown anually and is particularly acute in the provinces."

A report from Albania says infant malnutrition is high both in remote rural areas and in suburban neighbourhoods. Stunting and malnutrition have been found among 39 per cent of children in city suburbs. Some 21 per cent of Bulgaria's 1.4 million children live in poverty, and the state estimates that 52 per cent of its Roma children are undernourished.

Last year around 530,000 pensioners were registered in Latvia, and according to the Latvian Association of Pensioners, 80 per cent of them had incomes under the social minimum. As well as food, they have to pay for rent, fuel and medicines. The Latvian Red Cross is particularly concerned for the lonely, housebound elderly.

World Food Day - known as Hunger Day in some countries - was pioneerd in Central Europe by the Lodz branch of the Polish Red Cross. Since 1999 it has used it to raise funds and public awareness. It has financed school meal programmes and, with media support, driven home the seriousness of the domestic situation. In 2000, Hunger Day became a national event, and last year a regional one with Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia joining in. Five more countries signed up in 2002.

The campaigns began last week in some countries, and in Poland a month-long programme has been mounted. Some 16 districts are participating there, selling bread donated by local bakers and collecting money in streets and restaurants to fund school meals, and running an information campaign.

The Lithuanian Red Cross has extended its campaign from street, market-place and even church pulpit, to the classroom. Hunger Day events in school breaks, and school drawing competitions, have been accompanied by lessons exploring hunger.

In the town of Kazlu Ruda, teacher Ramute Atkocaitiene asked her class, "Did you know that every two seconds a child dies of hunger? How is that possible in our modern world with all its science and technology?"

The discussion moves onto Africa's tragedy, and the imbalance between the world's rich north and deprived south. "To which part does Lithuania belong?" the teacher asks. "The north," a child replied, "but we have children who are poor and hungry." The class at the Kazys Grinius Gymnasium considered why, and placed unemployment, low salaries and alcoholism atop their list of reasons.

Kazlu Ruda is not a poor town compared to the surrounding region but the authorities describe a quarter of the school's 1,000 pupils as being socially vulnerable. Lithuania is far from Africa's hunger belt but World Food Day in the Baltic state is no less significant for that.

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