Time for the “magic sandwich”

NGOs, parents and teachers are calling for urgent action against child malnutrition

The parish of Santa María Magdalena in Barcelona provides free snacks in the evening for children who are left to go hungry.
The parish of Santa María Magdalena in Barcelona provides free snacks in the evening for children who are left to go hungry.ALBERT GARCÍA

"Today I've brought a magic sandwich for breakfast: bread with bread. I'll decide what might be in it," a junior high school pupil recently told Conchi Martínez, the deputy president of the Federation of Associations Attending Adolescents and Infants, Fedaia,

Not long ago Martínez says that she came across a child sorting through a rubbish bin: "I told him that he shouldn't be doing that, but he told me that this is what his mother does." Situations like this, along with reports of children fainting in class because they have not had breakfast, or even dinner the night before, have been reported over the last couple of years, but are now becoming so common that a number of regional governments are now having to take action. NGOs, parent teacher associations, and teachers' unions are calling on the central government to take steps to tackle child hunger. The Education and Health Ministries say they have no plans to organize any meeting at the national level to address the issue, arguing that the responsibility for dealing with it falls to the regional administrations. The elderly and the handicapped have until now been the groups in society that have taken more than 50 percent of the money that taxpayers are allowed to donate to charities. But last week Secretary of State Juan Manuel Moreno announced that the priority recipients of the 211 million euros collected in this way would be low-income families. "Fighting poverty is an urgent objective, but combating child poverty is a bigger priority," he said. Industry Ministry José Manuel Soria has called for a cut in funding for regional television stations and for the money to go toward guaranteeing that children are eating properly.

“Schools should be at the service of the community”


José Luis Pazos, the head of Ceapa, Spain's largest association of parents of children at state schools, warns that growing numbers of pupils throughout the country are going hungry.

"It is difficult to put a figure on it and it is probably happening with more intensity in some regions than others, but across Spain there are families who cannot adequately feed their children; there are schoolchildren who are suffering from hunger," he says.

Question. What is being done to address this problem?

Answer. Apart from the appeals we are making to charities and non-government organizations, as well as the government, which are not having much response aside from programs to provide free meals to deprived children in Andalusia and the Canary Islands, it is parent-teacher associations and schools themselves who are looking after underprivileged children. All too often they are doing this with the little money they have at their disposal, they provide food for children who have lost meal subsidies.

Q. What do the regional governments need to be doing to address this situation, in your opinion?

A. The first thing that they have to do is re-establish the system of meal subsidies for children from low-income families, which have all been cut, in many cases by up to 50 percent. In fact, these grants need to be increased, because there are more and more children who need them. Furthermore, what we need to do is have a debate at national level to decide whether all children should eat at school as part of the education process, as happens in other countries, for example, in Finland.

Q. So schools should provide a much wider range of services than they currently do?

A. Schools should be at the service of the community, in touch with all the needs of children and parents. Schools should be public in the widest sense of the word, open 24 hours a day if necessary.

Q. You're talking about 24 hours a day. Do you also mean care needs to be provided 12 months a year?

A. Schools, if they are needed, should never close, except at those times when the school board believes they are not needed, but they should be open at all times otherwise. For this to happen requires the regional government to trust school boards and to support them with whatever legislation is necessary.

Q. What should schools be doing to help out children who are at risk?

A. The school can help in applying all sorts of measures. The reality is that what happens in the home affects children at school. Teachers know the children, they know the challenges they face. The other day, a teacher in Madrid told me: "I know of at least one child who is studying by candlelight, because the electricity has been cut off at home."

The Canary Islands and Andalusia are the first regional governments to announce plans to combat child hunger. The Canaries Islands will be providing free meals over the course of the summer holidays for 8,000 children, while in Andalusia, children from the poorest families will be given three meals a day. Catalonia is also looking at how to respond to the calls for help from schools. Barcelona City Hall has increased spending on social services to help almost 3,000 children who do not have enough to eat. Last week it announced that it would raise the value of its food kitchen checks from four to five euros (a meal costs 6.2 euros) for 2,000 children.

These regions are far from alone in facing a growing problem of child malnutrition as the crisis deepens and spending on social services is cut. "It is happening everywhere," says Francisco García of the CCOO labor union. "The increase in unemployment and the fact that growing numbers of households now have no breadwinner, along with cuts to family benefit, mean that many families can no longer cope." García says it gladdens him to see NGOs and, in many cases, teachers responding, but says regional administrations, as in the cases of Andalusia and the Canaries, need to take the lead.

"This is a very serious problem, and shows that education cuts are making the situation worse," says Carmen Guaita of the ANPE teachers' union. "We need to have trained staff in schools able to identify children who are not eating enough."

In September, the countries' two biggest parent associations (Ceapa and Concapa) issued a warning: funding cuts of up to 50 percent for free or low-cost school meals would have disastrous consequences for thousands of families. "How is it possible that in places like Madrid, funding for school meals is being cut at the same time that 90 million euros can be found to help children attending private school pay for their uniforms?" asks a spokesman for Ceapa.

Opposition parties in Catalonia are calling for an end to government funding for private schools, and for the 30 million euros to be spent on providing low-cost food for malnourished children attending state schools. "What is going on right now is the equivalent of sacking doctors during an outbreak of the plague," says José Manuel Ramírez, president of the Association of Heads and Managers of Social Services. "The state has to intervene. Every time a social worker has to send a child to an NGO or charity, the government is failing," he adds, pointing out that the government has shaved 65 percent of the budget for its nationwide social services network.

The Spanish offices of Unicef is keeping out of the argument over who should coordinate and fund aid for malnourished children, simply saying it has to reach out to families wherever they are. "It mustn't be a question of where one lives," says Marta Arias, Unicef's director of infant policy. She says research shows "there are more and more people living in worse conditions."

In response, the Red Cross, which already helps 1.4 million people through its crisis program, last year made its first emergency appeal on behalf of Spaniards. "People are no longer receiving any welfare payment, and so any help to families we can offer is limited," says José Javier Sánchez, the organization's deputy head of social inclusion. He says that the Red Cross has had to use overseas cooperation funds to meet the growing need in Spain, and says it is time the state took a leading role. "Ordinary people can also do more to help," he adds.

Elena Gómez, president of the AMPAS teachers' union in the northwestern region of Galicia, says children were offered extra food to take home in many schools last year, but that many refused "out of shame, and a refusal to recognize the problem." She adds that in rural areas "many families produce most of their own food."

Charities are worried because high schools no longer provide a meal for students. "A lot of kids, therefore, get home before their parents, and at best will find something in the fridge to heat up. If not, they simply don't eat," says Carmelo Monteagudo, the head of children's charity Aldeas Infantiles in Zaragoza, in Aragon. "We now offer hot meals to children at risk. There are more than 50 who have their lunch here, and a further 90 have a light meal in the afternoon. There are three families who take food home in a bag so that they can have something for dinner."

Charities say that this is a widespread and growing problem. The Red Cross now provides afternoon meals in 40 provinces throughout the country. Galicia's head of education, Jesús Vázquez, says his region is not planning to introduce special measures to feed children. "This is a region with a long history of providing hot meals for children." The regional education department co-finances healthy breakfasts and fruit throughout the day, and the regional government has also set up soup kitchens. Alberto Vàzquez of the CCOO says that so far no problems have been detected. "We don't want to be alarmist," he says.

For the moment, charities working in the Basque Country say the situation is under control. Of the 91,000 children who have their lunch in school, 40,900 receive financial help to pay for it, a drop of 2,000 on last year. There have been a number of cases of child malnutrition in Álava, mainly among immigrant families.

Once out of school, what happens to children at risk? On many occasions the Church offers help through day centers. Aside from providing some education, they also give children a meal. The Santa María Magdalena parish in the deprived Les Roquetes district in Barcelona has been providing light meals for the last month. "You see some of the kids here eating very quickly, it's clear that they are hungry," says local priest Joaquim Brustenga. The city's equally deprived Raval neighborhood has a children's center, which provides an afternoon snack to around 150 children. "We give them some fruit and milk, something fresh, because the food they are given from the food bank is dried or canned," says the center's Enric Canet. The Pere Tarrés religious charity has increased the number of meals it provides from 800 two years ago to 2,500 at its 21 centers throughout Catalonia. María València, who runs the centers, says that in many cases, an afternoon snack will be the last meal many of the children will eat until the next day. "When you get to know the kids, they tell you everything: that they are hungry, or that they sleep three in a bed."

Summer vacation at a child charity home


Spain is fast approaching the end of the academic year, which means many junior high school students will need to go somewhere else to receive a proper meal at lunchtime. The ranks of the country's unemployed have swelled to a record 6.2 million as a result of an ongoing crisis that has seen it mired in its second recession in barely four years and many parents no longer have the means to provide for their offspring.

At Valencia's Casa Caridad charity home, the number of children in need of a daily meal is already up 38 percent on last year at 84. The Church-run center says it sees a notable increase during vacation periods, and that children from families who a few years ago would not have needed help are now without a breadwinner. In response to the growing demand, it opened a new center last year.

High school principals say they have been aware of the growing problem of malnourished children from families without any income.

"These are children who have no money to buy books, their parents cannot afford to buy them clothes, and they are often unwashed," says Vicent Ripòll, the president of the Valencia Primary School Head Teachers Association. In the absence of more accurate figures, he says the only way to gauge the seriousness of the situation is by talking to charities and non-government organizations.

Last year, Casa Caridad saw the number of children it normally looks after double on the previous year. Around 11,600 youngsters, most aged between four and 11, were given food and shelter in its food kitchens and hostels in Valencia. Around 8.4 percent of them are obliged to turn to charity because they no longer receive subsidies from the regional government to eat at government-run food kitchens or at school, according to a report on poverty in the region published earlier this year.

According to a Red Cross report on social vulnerability from last year, 20 percent of the population of the region now lives below the poverty line.

To guarantee that families with children aged under two have enough to eat, the Red Cross has already distributed some 600 food parcels containing baby and infant food.

Pediatricians warn that poor diet can also lead to obesity, with children stuffing themselves with pastries and chocolate to stave off hunger.

Also looking to ensure a balanced and adequate diet, the regional government of Andalusia last week set up its own program to provide schools and colleges with food for malnourished children. Sandwiches, juices and cookies arrived on Friday at the Santa Ana state school in Linares, in Jaén province. Around 16 children, making up less than 10 percent of the student body, took advantage of the extra intake.

"They are very grateful: most of them come from families now facing terrible poverty," says school principal Antonio Fernández. Most of the pupils attending this school are the children of former workers at the loss-making Santana Motor automobile manufacturing plant, which the regional government shuttered two years ago.

Fernández says some parents have complained, saying their children also need help. Manuel Pegalajar, the head of the Santo Tomás public school in Jaén province, praises the initiative, but warns many families in need will not receive help. "We are having to differentiate between families in an extreme situation, and those still able to meet most of their needs," he says.

The job of means testing and deciding which families are most in need of food help falls to Andalusia's social services department. Once a child has been identified as malnourished, the parents must give their approval. The stigma of poverty is powerful, and the regional government has called for discretion in dealing with families in need.

For the coming summer vacation, charities will distribute food supplies, and in September, when the school year begins again, a second phase of the program will begin, directed at 48,000 pupils.


More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS