The hungry summer

Regional governments throughout the country are opening education centers during the break The aim is to provide children from low-income families with a decent meal

Youngsters at a school in Seville eating lunch during one of the summer courses set up to battle malnutrition.
Youngsters at a school in Seville eating lunch during one of the summer courses set up to battle malnutrition.PACO PUENTES

Onésimo Redondo is one of the oldest elementary schools in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. It dates back 110 years, over the course of which thousands of children have passed through its classrooms. But never in summer. In response to a worsening economic crisis, the school has set up a summer program ostensibly to offer pupils an immersion course in English, but that in reality is to provide the growing numbers of children from poorer families with at least one hot meal a day.

"To know that my children are going to eat properly while I am at work is a huge relief," says Mercedes Pruna, whose child attends the school. She earns just 800 euros a month, and is struggling to meet her mortgage repayments of 700 euros: "It's a great help, otherwise, I don't even want to think about it..."

Child poverty is on the increase in Spain, made worse, say parent-student organizations such as Ceapa and Concapa, by regional government spending cuts of up to 50 percent that have spelled an end to subsidized school meals. And Spain's three-month summer break means that many families are unable to provide for their children.

The education department of the Canary Islands says that it has provided meals for at least 12,000 children. Other regional governments, such as Catalonia and Andalusia, have organized urban summer camps, opening schools on a daily basis to provide activities for children, and more importantly, a proper meal, sparing the growing numbers of families sliding deeper into poverty the indignity of taking their children to a charity-run soup kitchen.

To know that my children are going to eat while I am at work is a relief"

At 40 percent, the Canary Islands has one of the highest unemployment levels in Spain, with child poverty at around 30 percent of the population; a third higher than the EU average.

In Andalusia, the education and social services departments have rolled out a 1.6 million-euro program in conjunction with local councils and charities in 57 schools throughout the region over the course of the summer, which has provided three meals a day for up to 4,000 children.

One of these is the Esperanza Aponte elementary school in San Juan de Aznalfarache, a tiny community in Seville province, where 15 youngsters are marking time before they can eat lunch. "There are families that are only able to eat once a day. There are homes where things are really very serious," says María José Rosillo, a social worker employed by the local council.

After washing their hands, the 15 children file into the dining room, where a dish of chickpea stew, croquettes and salad, and then melon for pudding await them. "In winter we give them two hot meals, but in summer, with the heat, one is enough," says Paqui Torres, who works in the kitchen.

The Canary Islands says it has provided meals for at least 12,000 children

Francisco Alcalaz, a parent of two of the children, says that he brings in just 600 euros a month from his unemployment benefit, out of which he has to pay 370 euros in rent. "If it weren't for this, my children wouldn't go hungry, but I don't think that they would get as good a meal as they do here," he admits, as he waits to pick them up outside the school gates. When they leave, the children are given a plastic bag with juice, a sandwich, a banana, and two packets of biscuits for their dinner and breakfast.

Catalonia is one of the few communities to provide detailed figures on child poverty. In Barcelona, in June, 2,865 children were detected as suffering from malnutrition: children who don't eat breakfast, who don't eat fruit, and who eat a bowl of pasta in the evening if they are lucky.

Not all of Spain's regions are prepared to recognize the scale of the problem. The education departments in the cities of Castellón and Alicante, run by the Popular Party, told EL PAÍS that they had not "received specific requests" for help from parents unable to feed their school-age children over the summer.

A report by the Canary Islands' education department from last September said that 16 percent of students were not eating in their school canteens because their parents could not afford to pay for meals. In response, the following term, the regional government found two million euros to subsidize school meals for children from low-income families, a policy it has continued throughout this summer.

My children wouldn't go hungry, but I don't think they would eat as well"

The Andalusia regional government raised a similar amount of money to be able to provide meals for some 50,000 school children from September, and says that it will implement a program to help identify children suffering from malnutrition, working in coordination with its social services department.

In Extremadura, which remains one of Spain's poorest regions, funding has been found for some 2,500 meals in 18 schools in eight towns and cities in July and August, although uptake was slow, according to local media. As in Andalusia, the free meals were offered within the context of summer camps and day centers, with children being given a bag with snacks to see them over to the next day.

The regional government of the Canary Islands is now studying how to offer breakfasts for school students when the new academic year resumes in September.

"We have met the targets we set, which was to set up a free meal system to help families in difficulties, so that nobody in need went hungry," says José Miguel Pérez, head of the regional government's education department.

Meanwhile, at Onésimo Redondo junior high in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the four women working for a local catering company brought in to provide children with a hot meal continue to offer hamburgers, stew, and fish. "At least they are getting a decent lunch here, and are learning something at the same time. It breaks your heart to think that many of them come here in the morning without having had a breakfast, and that they will go home in the evening and not have dinner. But we can't do anything about that," says one of the four, Isabel.

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