Coronavirus will increase number in EU at risk of going hungry, experts warn

The coronavirus pandemic will increase the number of Europeans who are at risk of going hungry and will lead to worse nutrition for the most vulnerable, experts warn.

Millions have lost their jobs amid national lockdowns and disruptions caused by the global health crisis, and many expect the economic impact to continue even once the virus is under control.

That will leave even more people out of work and have ramifications for their ability to buy food for themselves and their families.

“We’re going to go through an economic recession that’s probably not been seen since the 1930s, which will mean that the number of people who will be in food insecurity could actually double,” said Jacques Vandenschrik, the president of the European Food Banks Federation.

Though the impacts in Europe may not be as severe as elsewhere in the world due to EU countries’ social safety nets, Vandenschrik said “there will still be an increase in food insecurity in Europe, especially in the countries which are not as economically vibrant and where the social security could not be on the same level.”

In 2017, 6.6 percent of the population in the EU28 were severely materially deprived, according to the European Commission, and 18 percent of households across the bloc with children under age 15 experienced moderate or severe food insecurity, according to UNICEF.

Worldwide, the U.N. World Food Program estimates that the current crisis could almost double the number of people suffering from acute hunger.

The effects are already being felt by Europe’s food banks, which Vandenschrik said have experienced increased demand, as well as low-income children no longer getting the meals they depend on at schools, which have been shut down.

Since the beginning of the crisis, governments across Europe have been scrambling to help citizens fill their plates.

In the south of Italy, one of the countries that has been hit hardest by the crisis, there have been reports of people running out of food and money and protesting at small shops, demanding free food. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte promised in March that €4.3 billion would be made available to local authorities to help citizens and another €400 million would be spent on an emergency food relief fund, which could be given away as food vouchers. But mayors have said it’s not enough to feed the hungry nation. 

Other governments have worked to redistribute food. Due to disruptions along the food supply chain caused by border controls and restaurant closures, the industry has had to cope with piles of food that could go to waste. The British government, for example, offered £3.25 million for food redistribution organizations across England to help them cut food waste and redistribute up to 14,000 tons of surplus stock.

No hot meals for children

Another problem governments have had to face is how to feed children who normally depend on school meals but are now sheltered at home with parents who may not have work.

“The children who went to the school canteens, who had a meal scholarship, they have run out of their main daily food and parents cannot afford their unexpected expense of feeding them,” said Graciela Malgesini, a senior policy officer at the Spanish branch of the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN). 

In England, where 1.3 million children are normally eligible for free meals at school, their families get weekly shopping vouchers while schools are closed.

In Spain, the government also allocated extra money to local authorities to prepare and send food boxes to those children who had received meal scholarships at school.

But Malgesini said that regardless of the scheme, there are still “thousands of children and adolescents who are left without food.”

“Families who, for different reasons, could not get the scholarship, they’re not covered, although they might not have money to buy any food,” she said, stressing that the problem is particularly big in Spain, where many people have unstable work contracts and are employed in gig economy professions, which have been hit hard by the crisis. 

In Poland, the charity Polish Humanitarian Action, which has provided hot meals to the poorest children since 1998, says they already know they will have to prepare more food for the next school year. 

“Already now, only six weeks into the crisis, we’re receiving signals from schools and from the local partners that more and more parents are turning for help — as they’ve just lost their jobs or their companies have financial problems. We’ll see more situations like that,” said Helena Krajewska, a press officer at the NGO. 

As Polish schools are still closed, the organization is now distributing packages to the most vulnerable children via a network of its partners. 

Quality matters

But Malgesini from the Spanish EAPN says it’s not only important for governments to ensure they’re providing food to low-income children, but that they’re also getting nutritious meals.

She cited as an example a national government-funded program in Madrid to distribute meals to some 11,500 students through Telepizza, a Spanish fast-food company, with menu items ranging from chicken burgers to New York pizza and chicken nuggets. But this has been criticized for its low nutritional value.

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the president of the Madrid region, said in response to the criticism: “100 percent of children love it.”

“It’s quite fast-foody,” said Malgesini. “In Spain, we eat in a very balanced way, with a variety of protein from vegetable origin, not only fast food. We eat a lot of fish, and fish is not contemplated at all [in the program’s menus],” she added, stressing that since children have to stay home under lockdown, this could result in obesity. 

Experts warn that this is another side effect of the crisis: That the most vulnerable will end up malnourished and potentially with other health risks. Sales data from the first months of the crisis show that Europeans in various countries stocked up on processed food, while in the U.S. many chose processed snacks over fresh fruit and vegetables. 

Healthy food is still a lot more expensive, a lot of people survive on bread, and unhealthy, fried food that’s cheaper,” said Elke Vandermeerschen, the EAPN’s communications officer. 

Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email pro@politico.eu to request a complimentary trial.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *