School throws safety net to hungry Portuguese kids

LISBON, Jan 13, 2013 (AFP) -It is hard to picture the scene in 21st-century Europe, but as debt-ridden Portugal heads into a new year of economic crisis, schools are stepping in to feed children who would otherwise go hungry at home.
One school in a poor district of north Lisbon stayed open over the Christmas break to serve up lunch to around 40 pupils, aged four to 18, out of its 800 enrolled students.
"Otherwise the children risked going hungry for two weeks," explained its headmaster, who preferred to remain unnamed.
"Pupils had been coming in on a Monday morning nearly faint with hunger, after several days without eating properly."
Nationwide, Portuguese schools have been offering free breakfasts to thousands of children since the start of the school year as part of a programme funded by donors in the food industry.
By late November, some 13,000 children had been flagged up by schools participating in the scheme as facing nutritional problems, up 3,000 on a month earlier.
The Lisbon school also started by offering breakfast to a handful of needy pupils.
"Now, with the crisis growing worse, we are seeing more and more children who are not getting enough food," its headmaster told AFP.
Over the Easter break, the school expects to serve food to up to 100 children. Most of them have parents out of work -- like 16 percent of the Portuguese workforce -- but are not eligible for welfare, according to a social worker at the school.
The Lisbon school has been financing the free meals from the profits generated by its regular canteen, as well as by selling off school equipment.
Social stigma ensured however that not all the children eligible for Christmas meals turned up.
"However hungry they are, around half, mostly teenagers, preferred not to come rather than own up to their parents' poverty before their schoolmates," said the headmaster.
-- 'The whole country is growing poorer' --
Under the national anti-hunger programme, children flagged as facing nutritional problems are supposed to receive help from social services, along with their families. But in practice, these services are often swamped.
"Welfare officials tell us to send the families to one of the three social canteens run for children in the neighbourhood -- but there are no places left," said the Lisbon headmaster.
In the Lisbon suburb of Sacavem, primary and kindergarten headmistress Ana Parente tells a similar story.
"A lot of parents who were fine up until now are jobless. For the first time we have been providing free breakfasts to 10 primary school children," she told AFP.
More than half of all families in Sacavem get state help with covering school costs, and all of those families signed their children up for the town's daycare programme run over the Christmas holidays -- which includes a free meal. Last year only half had registered, according to town officials.
"Since 2010, parents until then considered to be middle class have been slipping close to the poverty line," said Albino Almeida of the National Parents' Association, CONFAP.
"The new food aid programme is a way to move faster and alleviate the problem -- but it doesn't solve it."
With a new wave of austerity measures set to kick in this month, campaigners expect worse to come.
Portugal last year became the third European Union nation to be bailed out by international creditors after it negotiated a package worth 78 billion euros ($101.5 billion) from the EU, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.
Its 2013 budget imposes an unprecedented austerity squeeze, including tax rises and cuts in unemployment and sick leave benefits.
"We are bracing for an exponential rise in the hardship faced by families," said Almeida. "The country as a whole is growing poorer, and we are seeing people slide into poverty like never before."

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