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As poverty continues to rise, the European Food Aid Programme for the Most Deprived is under threat.
This could affect some 18 million people.
Euronews travelled to Poland to meet some of them.
We joined a crew of two police women on patrol in Warsaw.
Agnieszka and her colleagues are familiar with the Polish capital’s homeless, whom they regularly visit. They bring them food and clothes.
Gosia has been living underground for eleven years.
She is one of many who have taken refuge in the city’s heating ducts.
“The people from the local social centre came to see me, along with the director. I asked her whether I could get any financial help, but she said, no, you won’t get anything. Because I like to have a drink now and then… People like me get nothing,” Gosia tells us.
Others live in makeshift huts in the woods, on the outskirts of town.
Monika, who lost one of her legs, can’t find any work. She doesn’t get any invalidity pension.
Her partner, Wlodzimierz, earns the minimum wage – 1500 zlotys or 350 euros per month – thanks to some clearning work and odd jobs.
“We’re doing all we can to get out of this situation,” says Wlodzimierz.
Officially, there are between 80,000 and 130,000 homeless people in Poland.
“We see more and more homeless people. Poverty doesn’t just affect people who live underground or in huts like these,” says Agneska, the police officer.
“There are also poor people living in normal houses. The situation isn’t easy. People can’t make ends meet from one month to the next. That’s the case for many Polish people.”
While it is one of the few EU countries that still enjoys positive growth, there are nevertheless an estimated 2,5 million people living in extreme poverty in Poland – that’s 7 percent of the population.
More and more people are turning to soup kitchens like the one we visited in Warsaw, run by the charity Caritas.
Most of the food there comes from the European Food Aid Programme for the Most Deprived.
“This programme allows us to make food for 800 people. If this aid were to run out, if there were no more funding, we would have to close down the canteen,” says Izabella Choma, head of the Praga soup canteen, Caritas.
Such an outcome wouldn’t just affect the homeless who eat there. Anna Slawinska works at the canteen for a monthly salary of about 300 euros.
“We can barely live on that. We just about survive on my salary. My husband is unemployed, I have two children, it’s hard. I also get help from Caritas, I get food and clothes parcels, and parcels for special occasions. We get by somehow,” she tells us.
Ninety percent of the food aid handed out by charities in Poland comes from the EU’s Programme.
Poland is one of the main beneficiaries of the scheme, which was set up in 1987 to redistribute stocks of agricultural surplus.
With stocks depleting, the scheme’s 500 million euros per year come from Common Agricultural Policy funds.
Every year, companies like Mlekovita, a dairy factory in Wysokie Mazowieckie, 150 kilometres North-East of Warsaw, sign lucrative deals with the Programme.
“These are really good contracts because they are EU contacts, so it’s a guarantee for the producer,” says Mlekovita CEO Dariusz Sapiński.
“Such a contract provides us with a client guarantee, a quality guarantee, and we are 100 percent sure we will get paid.”
But following a complaint by Germany, the European Court of Justice has ruled that the majority of food supplies under the scheme should come from public storage.
The European Council is now working on a new programme for 2014 but must satisfy disgruntled members including several northern European countries and the Czech Republic.
According to Lukasz Beier, EU food aid programme coordinator at the Polish federation of food banks, the revised project doesn’t go far enough:
“The EU’s proposal for a new Fund for the Most Deprived is much too low. It is totally disconnected from reality – all the figures show that the number of people threatened by poverty is growing. And meanwhile, the budget has dropped by 40 percent. The EU must stand by its poor, whose national budgets can’t cover such aid. In Poland for instance, it simply wouldn’t be possible,” says Lukasz Beier.
In all, 18 million people benefit from the Programme across 20 EU countries, including 1,5 million people in Poland.
Charitable organisations like “A chance for all” in Lodz are worried. Most of the food aid they get comes from the EU. Money saved on food aid can be used for rehabilitation programmes.
“If European aid were to stop, people wouldn’t queue up outside our foundation and we would be out of work, says Ewelina Gallas, director of the Rowne Szanse Foundation.
“Seriously, there are a lot of very poor families who wouldn’t know where to get food. There are families with four, five children, who live off benefits, who are unemployed. There are families in danger, people who are ill, others are threatened by social exclusion. For them, it’s a big problem. They can’t get by by themselves. They need help to get started again, to get a new start in life,” she says.
Europe’s pensioners are also among the most vulnerable.
“I have a small pension, 420 zlotys, about 100 euros,” says Anna, a pensioner. “I can’t buy anything with that! If we didn’t get these food parcels, I don’t know what we would do. The truth is, we couldn’t get by, believe me!”
At the Samarytanin de Lodz society, like everywhere else, there’s growing demand from people who can’t make ends meet even with a job, and especially from single parent families.
Izebela is divorced and unemployed. Her benefits will soon run out.
“At the moment, I get social benefits as well as child support for my son. With that money, I have to chose which to pay: either the rent, or the electricity bill. If I no longer got food aid, all my money would go towards food, and we would end up being evicted from our flat,” Izabela tells us.
If the EU’s Food Aid Programme for the Most Deprived is scrapped, organisations like these would have to rely on institutional or private funding.
But, in Poland, contributions by private companies are still very limited, according to Krzysztof Gajewski, manager at E.Leclerc Bielany supermarket in Warsaw.
Donations of unsold goods to local organisations represent less than one percent of turnover.
“The problem in Poland is that we still have to pay VAT on such goods. If you give, you still have to pay VAT. So sometimes, it’s easier for us to throw away the goods than to give them away. But new legislation is underway that should change this, it should be brought in next year, I hope. It will make it easier to make donations because we won’t have to pay taxes on top,” he tells us.
The Commission’s new proposal, which would reduce the Programme’s funding by around 40 percent, is to be voted on at the next budget summit in February.