EU To Decide Food Aid Program's Future

As Europe's debt crisis drags on, the social safety nets in place in eurozone countries are beginning to fray. One long-standing program, which is financed by the European Union, and uses surplus food stocks, may end soon. The decision on whether to cut funding to the food aid program comes as more people join the soup lines.

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In Europe the economic downturn has led more people there to turn to a food aid program for help, a program the EU may decide to cut this week. Hunger isn't a big problem in Europe, but tough times have meant some of its poorer citizens can't always pay for enough to eat. Eleanor Beardsley begins her story at a food bank in Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: About 70 families show up every week to this food distribution center in the west of Paris. They receive staples like pasta, milk, meat and canned goods. Fatima Belassi, who emigrated to France from Morocco 20 years ago, comes here once a month. Because of rising energy bills and a divorce, she says she can no longer feed her three children on a cleaning woman's salary.

FATIMA BELASSI: (Through translator) But we get even more than food here. They help you mentally. They help with paper work. They give you a lot of support.

BEARDSLEY: As Belassi's three-year-old daughter Mona picks out a book from the center's library, the line outside the front door grows longer. Volunteers hand out canned goods and others foodstuffs. On the shelves are boxes marked European Community. French food charities get about a third of their supplies from the EU. The percentage is as high as 90 percent in other countries like Poland.

MAURICE LONY: Every year in European agriculture there are a certain amount of surplus, so the European Union decided to give it to the charity organizations.

BEARDSLEY: That's Maurice Lony, president the French Food Bank Association, explaining how the program got started 25 years ago. But Lony says EU farming is more efficient today and there are no more huge surpluses. Increasingly, the EU has been purchasing food to keep the $650 million a year program running, and some countries like Germany say that doesn't make sense.

But proponents say only the program's legal status has to be changed to keep the food banks open. The 27 EU agriculture ministers will meet this week to decide on the program's fate, but it isn't looking good. Julien Laupretre is with the Secours Populaire Francais, one of Europe's biggest aide groups.

JULIEN LAUPRETRE: (Through translator) If the decision is made to discontinue this program, people may not starve, but there will be millions threatened by malnutrition. Thirteen million people across the continent depend on this aid and cancelling it would be a disaster.

BEARDSLEY: Laupretre says the financial crisis is also forcing more people to ask for help. Food banks like this one have long served single mothers and immigrants, but now the elderly and working poor are joining their ranks. Twenty-four-year-old Marc Antoine Vadelorge is one of the new faces brought in by the crisis.

MARC ANTOINE VADELORGE: My name is Marc Antoine Vadelorge. I come from Normandy. I'm a fisherman. And it's so hard now. All the price of the fish is down, the gas oil is up. I've make 10 days at 16 hours a day for 27 euro, you know. It's so hard.

BEARDSLEY: Vadelorge left his family's fish business to come to Paris to look for work in restaurants. He says he never imagined he would end up having to use a food bank.

For NPR news, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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