Did you know that one in 11 residents of greater Athens visits a soup kitchen daily? That's about 400,000 people, a figure unthinkable a year ago. And after the tragic events that accompanied the Greek Parliament's vote Sunday night to adopt even harsher austerity measures, the lines for free food will probably grow longer.
A common response to a problem of this magnitude might be to donate some cash to a charity or to leave a bagful of staples -- rice, pasta, canned tomatoes, for example -- in the new bins for the hungry at the exit to your supermarket after you've done your own shopping.
For most of us, that would be enough.
But last May a young woman had an idea that sent her to her computer instead of flopping exhausted into bed after her younger son's third birthday party. Why not create a network linking organizations that need food with those that have too much: bakeries, tavernas, hotels, fast food chains . . . ?
"These are untapped resources," said Xenia Papastavrou, who was raised in Athens and studied in Edinburgh and London. "Take the average bakery. They throw out as much as 30 kilos of bread every evening, but this must hurt. The employees have been up since 5 am making it. If you tell them there's a soup kitchen just three minutes away that would welcome it, they'll be thrilled to give it to them."
Papastavrou set up a website that May evening, and called it Boroume, which means "we can." "I wanted just one word, a verb, that would be positive and proactive."
But then summer came and the project did not take off until late October, when the influential Kathimerini newspaper ran a story about a bakery in a working-class district of Athens that, thanks to Boroume, had begun donating bread to a soup kitchen run by the local church.
Immediately, offers poured in -- from a taverna in the wealthy neighborhood of Kolonaki, from a big baked goods chain, from green grocers in the wholesale market of Rendi, from caterers with leftovers from weddings and baptisms -- and were directed to orphanages, old age homes, halfway houses for the handicapped, soup kitchens run by churches and municipalities all over the Athens area.
Now we have about 218 members, institutions that we work with, but we don't want to boast about numbers, though they're growing every day. We supply the connections -- all it takes is a phone call or email -- and hope they'll become automatic. Once they're introduced, givers and receivers can deal directly with each other.
Papastavrou knew where the needy were located because of her work as a volunteer for the Food Bank, founded in 1995 by Gerasimos Vassilopoulos, head of a prominent chain of supermarkets.
When I came back from London in '99," she said when we met at an all-day café in one of Athens' northern suburbs, "I knew I wanted to get involved with a charity. I could have joined a society to save the sea turtles or the bears, but instead I chose food, because it's so basic. Without it, we can't survive. But the Food Bank only deals with dry goods, nothing fresh or perishable, no fruit or vegetables, and that's where Boroume can fill the gap. And at the same time reduce the waste.
As Boroume gathered momentum, through Facebook in addition to the press, Papastavrou and her two partners, Alexandros Theodoridis and Alexia Moatsou, hired another ten volunteers in their tiny office to help coordinate the daily movements of food around Attica.
We wanted to have the maximum effect with the least cost, so we find a way to have the welfare organizations pick up the food themselves. Soon we'll be posting a map pinpointing their locations on our website, and individuals will be able to take food to them without contacting us.
On the day we met last week, Papastavrou was beaming with Boroume's latest successes. "We got a donation of 400 cartons of orange juice from CocaCola and the offer of six portions of fish soup from a woman named Margarita in Halandri. She sent an sms on Sunday night but I was able to put her in touch with an old age home close by. No offer is too small to turn down."
We're also branching out. We've just signed an agreement with the 40-member Attica Hotel Owners Association. We're going way beyond the distribution of surplus meals. They've got old furniture and refrigerators our institutions can use, and furthermore they're even going to cook meals especially for some of them.
As more and more people get involved, clusters of support form in neighborhoods, reviving the traditionally close social ties that urban anonymity discouraged. Ironically, by "friending" Boroume, Athenians discover aspects of their own communities they hadn't noticed.
Our approach allows donors to see where their gifts are going. They don't enter a general pool or an impersonal bank account. We're breaking down barriers of shyness and awkwardness and replacing them with instant gratification on both sides. Both givers and receivers are happy.
But what about the shame factor? The formerly well-off men and women who are reduced to poverty but are mortified to admit it?
To reach them, Boroume works with the social services of the various municipalities ("which are doing an excellent job) and the churches. With their networks of volunteers, they deliver food to individuals who can't bring themselves to go to soup kitchens.
In the last few weeks, Boroume seems to be moving into yet another dimension. "Once an institution does not have to worry about basics," said Papastavrou, "It can free up its funds for other uses. Like piano lessons for a talented child in a home for abused kids."
We starting to link up people with a special expertise. For example, a hairdresser went to a shelter for 15 girls and cut their hair for free. Can you imagine how good they all felt? An American friend is going to teach gym at a center in Agia Paraskevi, another guy is going to give tutoring in math, while a third may give cooking lessons. We do need cooks to volunteer their services.
Every day Boroume posts their latest news on Facebook. Today I learned that a call from Nargile, a posh restaurant in Kifissia, resulted in the delivery of six pans of freshly-cooked food to Frontida, a family support agency; that a group of dance students in the working class suburb of Aigaleo is collecting food for the homeless in their area; that this Saturday and next, the Public department store chain is sponsoring meetings with six famous Greek chefs at two big malls, and inviting customers to prepare their recipes ahead of time for distribution to the needy.
Numbers make us feel helpless but we try to think small so people are not dismayed by the enormity of the problem.
I'm reminded of Margaret Mead's classic words:
Don't think that a small group of awakened individuals cannot change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
Boroume is not restricted to Athens. They are also setting up networks in Patras, Thessaloniki, and elsewhere. For more information, go to the website . The organization expects to be granted NGO status any day now. At the moment Papastavrou and all its employees are volunteers in addition to holding regular jobs.
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