Unemployment. High deficit. Public debt. Bankruptcy. Recession. Troika.
I am sure at least one of these small, yet, very serious words come to mind when you ask any European about Portugal. The financial crisis turned the spotlight into this 10 million inhabitant’s country, which led to the request of financial aid in 2011. In terms of social justice, Portugal’s performance is rather fable, raking 20th out of the 28 EU member states. The average month income of Portuguese families downgraded from 948,58 euros in 2009 to 833, in 2014. In the same year about 10,9% of the Portuguese population was living on severe material deprivation. In terms of the long-term unemployment rate, the country ranks 5th and 6th when it comes to youth unemployment. One of the many consequences of adopting austerity measures is the creation of a wider gap of inequality as those who earn less are more affected. In 2013, Portugal’s poverty rate was 19,5% and it was the 9th most unequal country in the EU. One year later, 2 million people were living in poverty, which means one in every 5 Portuguese live with an average income lower than 422 euros and half a million people need alimentary help.
Times of arduous struggle require the most innovative and long lasting solutions. Therefore, the year of 2011 also marked the beginning of something new. An American man named Hunter Haldor founded a 100% volunteering movement aiming at combatting food waste. Given Portugal’s situation at the time, this reality was just shameful. How could this problem be tackled? The answer is a project called Refood, which already is a nationwide phenomenon. It works like a local chain involving very different elements of the society – individuals, small businesses such as restaurants and/or cafes, bakeries, social services, supermarkets and enterprises, which help logistically. These partners guarantee the daily food stockpiles, which are distributed by those who need the most. There is a pre-determined route and every day volunteers go to these places to collect the day’s food and bring them back to the operation’s center, where other volunteers organize them considering the number of families registered and their household. How do these families get chosen? This is when the social services intervene. They closely monitor their needs and communicate them to the closest existing operations center to these families’ residencies. Besides individuals, the project is involving other elements of the society, such as students from high schools who lend a helping hand. The food distribution happens in two different ways: some families receive full meals: soup, main dish, fruit, bread and yoghurts in quantity according to the household. Others receive bread and pastries with the same criteria.
So how big is the impact on a financial crisis-torn society?
Since its beginning until now, 34 operations centers have been inaugurated. Lisbon concentrates the majority of them. Albeit, it has spread to other parts of the country from north to south and from west to east. It is a real example of how circular economy works – food when not bought is given to those within the neighborhoods who cannot afford to buy it. It goes from having a price to having value. Furthermore, it strengthens the society’s bonds at a micro level, as there is literally a place of everyone: volunteers give their time; partners give their leftovers and other items vital to the success of this project, such as fridges or simple tupperwares, and beneficiaries show their gratitude, above all, keep their dignity of life. As we know, in democracies, the civil societies are dotted with amazing immaterial power. This project shows just that: people are not relying only on the State to pursue their interests and the fact that there is no legal framework to fight food waste boosted this movement forward. The people are filling the gap.
On the other hand, can we say that Refood is effectively making the Portuguese society more even? At a neoliberal capitalist world where we live by the there is no such thing as free lunches argument, individualism and competitiveness are highly demanded to thrive. This movement is clearly going against the establishment. Many defend it is also a way, which inevitably leads people to conform with their living conditions. It does not provide people with jobs hence they do not contribute to the economy. Some argue that we are perpetrating their spots at the lowest level of our society by feeding them instead of fighting for an actually better distribution of wealth. Is this the most effective way to overturn inequality, poverty and social exclusion? By lining up every night to collect a meal they fit in the “poor, unskilled and help dependent” label so many use to stigmatizing those who are hit the hardest by a ruthless and faceless global economy.
Carolina Lima Henriques is a student of International Relations at the University of Lisbon and a proud graduate of the second edition of the School of Democracy. She is also a volunteer at Refood where she does a 2-hour weekly shift every Friday.