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Europe

Portuguese turn to food banks in time of crisis

Portugal is being forced to make spending cuts in order to reduce the national deficit, and very few remain unaffected. Even some middle class citizens, such as doctors and lawyers, are having to ask for help to get by.

A man stands outside a food bank

Ever more Portuguese are turning to food banks for help

At a storage facility of the Lisbon food bank, there is hardly a free moment for the volunteers stacking pallets of food and labelling them for distribution. Canned goods that are nearing their expiration date, potato chips that are sold in different packaging, or lettuce that didn't find a buyer at the market - all of these things end up at the food bank.

Isabel Jonet

Jonet has noticed more middle class citizens asking for help

Rather than handing out food to those in need directly, the food bank doles out food to various aid organizations, such as the Red Cross, for local distribution.

"The food bank collects excess supplies from the food and agricultural industries that would otherwise be destroyed," Isabel Jonet, the founder and director of the food bank in Lisbon said.

"There are currently 18 food banks in Portugal serving 1,830 organizations. These organizations ensure that 280,000 people get at least one warm meal a day."

However, the volunteers at the food bank in Lisbon have had a tough time keeping up with the demand recently as Portugal's budget crisis worsens. More and more people have been going hungry.

Europe's poorhouse

That's no surprise considering some of what some people live off of in Portugal. Around a million pensioners have to get by on less than 300 euros ($393) per month, and the average income is around 800 euros per month. On top of that, unemployment is skyrocketing at a time when the Portuguese government is being forced to reduce spending. As a result, many social programs have been severely cut.

Food bank workers

Portuguese food banks service nearly 2,000 aid organizations

"The costs of the crisis are being unevenly distributed and hit the unemployed the hardest," said sociologist Jose Maria Castro Caldas. "That is at least 10 percent of the population. And if unemployment funds are cut now, about 600,000 Portuguese will have more or less no security through social programs."

The middle class isn't immune to these cuts either. Taxes are also rising, and more and more professors, bankers, and lawyers are slipping below the poverty line through no fault of their own.

"Many middle class citizens have lost their jobs and are in a tough spot," said food bank director Isabel Jonet. "They don't see any chance of finding another job. Teachers, doctors, and university staff have financial difficulties and are coming to us for help."

No relief in sight

Economists and politicians agree that things in Portugal will only get worse in the foreseeable future. For that reason, many Portuguese are leaving the country. Exact figures are not available, but many emigrants are young people who go abroad in search of work. Margarida Paes is a married mother of two in her mid-20s. Her family is toying with the idea of leaving Portugal.

Margarida Paes

Paes said she would move with her family if she could

"If my husband or I got a good job offer, of course we'd leave!" she said.

Paes works on a freelance basis in a law office for 500 euros a month; her husband earns about twice that amount. She says it's difficult sometimes for the family of four to make ends meet. When their income isn't enough, they have to rely on help from their families.

Child subsidy money has also been cut, and that surely won't be the last thing to go from Portugal's budget either. The European Union is pressuring the country to save even more to bring its debt problem under control, which can only spell even harder times for the Portuguese people down the road.

Author: Jochen Faget (mz)
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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