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.

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."

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