Food is a major tenet of Greekness. It's the centre from which Greek family life emanates. Most Athenians I know will have a huge tin can of olive oil and packages of fresh produce from their family's 'original' village in their apartment's kitchen. The connection to the land, even in a dusty, congested city like Athens, is palpable. I've heard stories as extreme as people flying pre-prepped tupperware to children studying abroad. Suffice to say, food is really as vital a part of daily life as your Mediterranean clichés might lead you to suspect. So when austerity bites, it hurts low- or no-income families but it also affects a big part of Greek life.
Food is getting more expensive. Global food prices are up around 10 per cent as of this time last year. With food prices "close to historical peaks" (World Bank), and Greek unemployment at its own historical peak, the poor either eat badly or nor at all. Although there is a plethora of what we might call 'crisis porn' out there - emotional, passionate opinion pieces about how much the Greek people are suffering - this blog isn't supposed to be one of them. Greece isn't a waste land, far from it, but you can see hungry people if you are half-paying attention. Methexis, an anarchist and father of three who runs a (tasty) cooperative restaurant near my house, angrily put it to me, sitting in a small bar late one evening: "You can see old people searching through the garbage looking for food around this time". He's referring to the poorer amongst Greece's immigrants and lonely, older residents. "And why do they do it by night? Because they're ashamed!".
Seedlings ready for collection, near Plato's Academy
Let's start at the beginning, with seeds. On the corner of a sleepy residential street that overlooks Plato's Academy - one of Athens' few parks - Vassilis and Alex are busy labelling seedlings, putting them into rows on the pavement. We're outside a newish cooperative café set up by a group of jobless but political Athenians. Vassilis and Alex are ecological activists. They're part of a wider network promoting cultivation from Greece's indigenous seeds.
Greece has one of the biggest networks of individuals who are maintaining indigenous seeds, organised via an online platform called Peliti . It's a sort of 'seed bank network', if you will, where people can trade seeds according to their needs, finding one another through a directory of an impressive 10,000 addresses across the country. They are at this small café to grow the network: Alex tells me that "people of all ages, from across Attika (the region surrounding Athens) come here", arriving to pick up a few seedlings, give their email address, and a promise that they'll return 30% of the seeds that the plants produce.
Vassilis gives a speech about the project, how to care for the seedlings, what not to do, and so on, and I talk to Alex about the crisis. Has an ecological, back to the land movement taken root in Greece because of the crisis? "This kind of thing is definitely more popular now... people are catching on to the idea that they can provide for themselves if we can't rely on the system". That is, the increasingly expensive and, as recent Greenpeace Greece research shows, poisonous groceries found in the supermarkets.
I'm told that since Greece joined the EU in 1981, Greek produce has been on the decline because EU subsidies incentivised either no cultivation or the cultivation of a narrow set of specific crops. A rich agricultural history has also withered, at least on the mainland, because of the incentives given to farmers to grow specific, patented seeds. To some degree, what Vassilis and Alex are doing is legally dubious. But that's the point: they're challenging the legality - and morality - of patented seeds. And the movement is growing: if people can grow food on their balconies and in city farms, they can feed themselves and the most needy. Alternatively, if they have no job and no prospects, as several students at National Technical University in Athens recently suggested to me, their 'plan B' is to return to some family plot on an island or in a village, and subsist.
Exarcheia park and allotments (an erstwhile carpark)
Seeds are a small but important part of Greece's food sovereignty movement. More prominent are the city's urban farms. Most of these farms pre-date the crisis, and are usually on abandoned land, squatted or bequeathed suburban mansions.
Villa Zografou is one such mansion, with a large organic plot run by volunteers. Their produce goes directly to local 'solidarity kitchens' which aim to feed those without access to nutritious food. The farms perform a double function, providing nutritious food to those who need it, but also encouraging people to think about where their food comes from and how to take charge of what they eat.
In Exarchiea, the bastion of Athens' alternative movements and of 'political resistance', activists have turned an old car park into small community-run allotment-cum-park. Alex, from the seed bank movement, says the farm - a two minute walk from the neighbourhood's central square - is a "genuine child of the 2008 riots". He continues: "Before the riots, this place was concrete, shut off from the community, an eyesore. During that time, we took it, we reclaimed the public space and turned it into something beautiful. We're growing food here, we're teaching people where they're food comes from, and it's now a place for people to be, to relax, a bit of greenery".
Sitting in a café across the street from the park, Alex is obviously proud. "Yes, there are people here who don't respect the park, who throw litter, who sit there without any connection to the place and smoke weed and look aggressive, but it's transformed the area". Exarchiea's park is possibly the most obvious example of a broader trend: city farms signal that food is steadily becoming a prominent feature of alternative politics here, with various anarchist and leftist groups meeting to figure out a way of getting organic and traditional crops from some of the more political Greek farmers directly to Athenians, without middlemen. Farmers' markets, where food is sold - and in some cases traded directly - have been appearing in town squares for a few years now, some in Exarchiea, some in other central neighbourhoods like Metaxourgeio (see this Red Pepper article for more info).
El Chef, one of Athen's many solidarity kitchens
Where does all this food go? Some is taken home, but much of the produce ends up with Athens' solidarity kitchens. These kitchens can now be found throughout the city, feeding the needy, the poor and hardworking volunteers and activists. I'm taken to a small cooperatively-run café in Metaxourgeio, with pre-prepared oily artichokes and peppers, and a giant vat of turkey and rice soup on the boil (heated by a gas stove on the pavement). Delicious, needless to say. Such kitchens are a meeting place for the politically-inclined to relax, but they also feed the homeless and unemployed: I was introduced to a Greek father and ten-year old daughter, both without a home, daily moving from solidarity kitchen to solidarity kitchen. Worryingly, it's ordinary people such as these who rely on the voluntary help of others.
The neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood response to austerity's worst effects mirrors a broader trend in Athens' politics. After 2011's 'occupation of squares' movement - think Occupy, Tahrir, indignados - in which the occupation of Syntagma Square, Athens' main square, was prominent, the energy of this non-hierarchical, politicising movement spread to the neighbourhoods. And solidarity kitchens, "something that Greeks didn't even think about two years ago", according to a young agricultural student at the Wednesday night meal, have flourished.
Interestingly - and worryingly - food is also becoming a tool of political infiltration. Leftists and anarchists are providing food (and many other services: doctors' surgeries, psychological therapy, tutoring and so on), but so are the fascists. Golden Dawn, Greece's well known Nazi party and perpetrators of racist and lethal violence, is also giving away bundles of food for 'Greeks only'. A well funded network, Golden Dawn offers free food to 'ethnic Greeks' in order to both politically infiltrate a specific neighbourhood - preparing for future elections - but they are also seeking mass media attention. And it works: media attention is often lavished on them due to either state complicity or simply because they are so controversial. Antifascist groups are doing a good job of resisting them - Golden Dawn was recently stopped from giving out food on the island of Thasos- and even the Mayor of Athens recently halted a mass Orthodox Easter food giveaway in Syntagma Square. Yet, they are using food to get people's political support. Clearly, both grass roots movements and political parties (including left coalition party Syriza) are using the provision of food as an ideological weapon.
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