Greece: Eating from bins – the new make do

A man eating a common meal next to a church in Thessaloniki on 9 September
A man eating a common meal next to a church in Thessaloniki on 9 September
19 September 2011 – To Vima (Athens)

On 19 September, the Greek government announced new cuts designed to convince its partners to hand over the 6th tranche of international aid. Meanwhile in the streets of Athens, more and more people are searching for a cheap way to feed themselves.

Until now, the phenomenon was unknown in this country, but with the economic crisis, we have seen more and more people searching bins for food. In the past, only tramps and Roma rooted through bins. Then came the arrival of the Asian and African migrants who sifted through rubbish, heaping their finds into supermarket trolleys. Today Greeks are also looking through bins. Many of them are looking for things to sell, but others are searching for food.

For 25 years, Iranian born Samat Eftehar has owned a tavern in Exarchia. "It is still a lively little neighbourhood. I have known most of the people here for years. Some of them who were already on low salaries have had their wages cut. They are decent people, and now they are forced to eat from bins," he says.

Sometimes, he gives away food to needy people he knows. "I don’t think we have seen the last scene in this tragedy yet. Things are getting worse. There’s a real famine,” insists Samat Eftehar. “I don’t mean a famine where there is nothing to eat, like in Africa. I’m talking about a famine where people can’t even afford to buy meat once a month."

Even during the recession, Europe still throws away 89 million tonnes of food every year. That is 180 kilos of food for each of the EU’s citizens. Households are responsible for 43% of this wastage, which is often caused by the trompe l’oeil of expiry dates.

"At least I have pocket money"

Giorgos Arabatzoglou works as a street cleaner for Penteli district in the north of Athens: "Even in this well-off suburb, people are going through the bins, especially on market days. And it’s on the increase,” he says. “We are always finding torn bin liners, so we think more people are rooting: not just in the supermarket bins, but also outside souvlaki shops. Recently, I saw the extraordinary spectacle of a well-dressed young woman, rooting through a pile of expired yogurts trying to find the one with the most recent date."

For Athens city councillor Giannis Apostolopoulos, "the phenomenon has been on the rise over the last six weeks, although it has been present in the country for 10 years. We notice it more now because we are more directly affected. There are plenty of retired people whose incomes have been cut, and sometimes you see young unemployed people too." And the phenomenon is not limited to Athens. "No doubt about it. But we have a daily soup kitchen here, which attracts people from other neighbourhoods. And the skips in Athens are piled that bit higher."

For several years, Dimitri, age 40, has worked as a crane operator for Athens city council. One day, the father of four found a piece of furniture he thought might suit his hallway that had been put out on the street. “I didn’t even have 10 euros in my pocket to buy cigarettes. The council hadn’t paid us for months, and that is when I found this furniture which had been thrown away in the Egaleo district. So I took it while I had the chance. A colleague told me to sell it off for cheap. That was the first time I did it, and I earned 60 euros in two afternoons."

Dimitri has since traded in his car and bought a small van. When his eldest daughter sees furniture out on the street, she tells him to come and get it, while the garage of his building has become his workshop. "I get 300-400 euros a month out of it, so at least I have pocket money." But Dimitri still has to contend with a growing number of competitors who are also searching the streets.

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