Crisis sends French new poor flocking to food banks

27th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

The world financial crisis is forcing more and more once relatively comfortable French workers to seek out charity food banks and soup kitchens to get a free hot meal.

PARIS - "It's tough to come here, I don't think I'll ever get used to it," said one man, a former manager in one of Paris' upscale luxury grocers, as he queued on a cold January morning outside a charity warehouse.

"But it's a great help, and I don't have the choice," said the 43-year-old, who did not want to give his name, as he lined up to get a meal package from the Restos du Coeur (Restaurants of the Heart) group.

Since he was laid off a year and a half ago, he has had only a few short-term contract jobs. Now, he has to get by on 14 euros (18 dollars) a day in welfare payments in a city where a cheap sandwich costs around four euros. He has been coming for the past month to the Restos du Coeur, a chain of soup kitchens and food banks that was set up by a French comedian a quarter of a century ago to provide relief for the country's impoverished.

"You have to take whatever help you can get but you must fight so as not to end up completely dependent on aid," he said.

More and more French are resorting to charities such as the Restos du Coeur, which has food banks and free canteens across the country and last year provided 91 million meals to the needy.

The economic outlook for the country is bleak. France narrowly averted a technical recession last year, and experts predict it will fall into recession next year for the first time since 1993.

Unemployment, currently over two million, looks set to continue rising.

Armelle, 54, who declined to give her surname, was another customer lining up at the Paris depot for packages that contain fruit and vegetables, cheese and tins of food.

"It was hard for me to take this step. But I swallowed my pride and I came," she said, adding that her five children do not know that she gets her supplies from the charity.

"I couldn't tell them. I'm afraid it would damage their image of me. It's a kind of begging," she said.

Armelle works in a primary school canteen in Paris but has been on leave since September to take care of her 15-year-old handicapped son, and since then has found it impossible to make ends meet.

"After you pay the rent, the electricity, there's nothing left," she said, decrying the high prices of basic foodstuffs in supermarkets.

Stephane Tavenaux, a 33-year-old single man whose illness allows him to work only part-time in a bakery, said he didn't earn enough to pay his rent and was worried about losing his flat.

But he insisted he felt no shame about coming to the Restos du Coeur to stock up for the week.

"I had to do it and now I'm used to the idea," he said with a bitter smile.

This Paris centre, like Restos du Coeur across the country, is having to deal with a growing and more diverse public.

Jeanine Teboul, who manages the centre, said she was dealing with a lot more "professionally qualified young people who just can't manage" as well as more and more pensioners who have worked all their lives.

This trend has grown in recent years but has increased rapidly since the financial crisis set in last year, she said, adding that so far this winter the number of meals the Restos du Coeur have served has risen by 8.5 percent.

The phenomenon concerns people of all ages and all social categories, said Teboul.


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