A campaign launched by Barcelona city authorities has detected almost 3,000 malnourished children in its public schools. Last December, City Hall sent a circular to 500 institutions to gauge the extent of a problem that is prevalent across the country.
“In the last two years we have had serious cases,” says Francesc Freixanet, principal of the Antaviana school in the working class neighborhood of Les Roquetes. On two occasions we had to call an ambulance.” Freixanet also recalls seeing a pupil going through the garbage bins at school. “It’s horrifying,” he says.
“Sometimes a child will come to school with stomach pains. If you ask, they’ll tell you the last thing they ate was a sandwich at 7pm,” says Nuría Garcia, principal of the Sant Josep Oriol school.
According to Unicef, child poverty in Catalonia rose from 18.5 percent in 2008 to 23.8 percent in 2010 (the national rate is 26.2 percent). The authorities in Barcelona want to attach names and surnames to those statistics. “If this is happening, we want to know about it,” says Ángeles Canals, social services chief in the city.
Of the 2,865 undernourished children detected in Barcelona schools, 61 percent were already receiving aid from Canals’ department. However, 703 were getting no help whatsoever. City Hall has set up a 264,000-euro fund to help cover school meals for affected children or to give money directly to their parents.
If you ask, they’ll tell you the last thing they ate was a sandwich at 7pm"
“It’s a social failure,” says Freixanet, adding that the amount of time teachers now spend on paperwork and coordination with social services is detrimental to academic concerns. “Teachers have ended up being responsible for everything and we cannot devote as much time to what our job really consists of, which is reducing academic failure. But the most important thing is the well-being of the children.”
It is not just Catalonia that is experiencing higher instances of underfed children in school. Andalusia has set up a plan to provide three square meals a day in its schools, in a region where six out of 100 children live below the poverty line. The Socialist regional government also announced it would increase food aid at school for underprivileged students by a million euros. The Canary Islands regional government announced in April that it would keep schools open throughout the summer to prevent students from going hungry. During the 2012-13 academic year, 16,000 students have stopped eating at school in the Canaries because their families cannot meet the 25-euro minimum monthly fee.
Schools, local authorities and AMPA parents’ associations fear that these measures are still not sufficient as the recession deepens, unemployment rises and state subsidies for school materials are slashed.
“Next year is going to be dreadful,” warns Freixanet.