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Over the course of five days in mid-March, more than 2,500 people visited a government building in Dafni to order cheap potatoes. Young couples, pensioners, and families showed officials identification proving they lived in the Athens suburb and handed over cash in return for a receipt entitling them to up to two 20-kilo sacks of spuds. On March 17 farmers arrived with three truckloads of red mesh bags filled with potatoes and dispersed 75 tons to the buyers, some of whom arrived with carts. “Greeks find themselves in a situation where we don’t have enough to survive,” Vasiliki Kladia said after placing her order. Kladia has three children and has been unemployed for four years. “There are no jobs anywhere. Wages and pensions are very low, and everyone is in debt,” she said.
The potato movement, as it has come to be called, is a bit of a spontaneous experiment. The idea is to link consumers with farmers, who sell the potatoes for an average of about 33 euro cents (44¢) a kilo. That’s half the price charged at supermarkets and grocers, which are cut out of the picture. There have been potato sales in dozens of communities, as local governments and in some cases students and other volunteers hear about them and contact the Agricultural Association of Nevrokopi, a farmers group in northern Greece where the movement started, clamoring to participate. “People can’t hold out for very long, especially when new austerity measures now are implemented,” says Michalis Stavrianoudakis, mayor of Dafni, which has a population of 35,000. “The success of the program has led to people asking if we can do the same for olive oil and even for lamb, which is traditionally eaten at Easter.”
The potato is a relatively recent arrival to Greece. It was introduced in the 1830s by Ioannis Kapodistrias, the country’s first head of state, to bolster the nutrition of the poor, says Sakis Gekas, assistant professor of modern Greek history at York University in Toronto. Legend has it that Kapodistrias ordered the first delivery on Greek soil to be kept under guard to pique the interest of the locals and persuade them to add it to their diet as the country recovered from the war of independence from the Turks.
As Greece struggles through its fifth year of recession, little encouragement is needed now. “The potato movement has received some momentum, reflecting the needs of people not just to circumvent oligopolies and markups from middlemen and large supermarkets but also to save money in these difficult times,” Gekas says. The country completed the biggest-ever debt swap with bondholders in early March; to get the European bailout, it has implemented more than €33 billion worth of tax increases and spending cuts over the past two years. The government cut pensions and salaries for state workers 12 percent this year and reduced the minimum wage 22 percent, to €683 a month. The gross domestic product shrank 7.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011 from the year before, according to the Hellenic Statistical Authority. Unemployment in December rose to a record 21 percent and hit 51 percent for young Greeks. Police reported on March 11 that robberies and thefts rose 10 percent in 2011, with many of the incidents involving small amounts of money or property. The police refer to them as crimes of “emergency or survival.”
“The majority of the people haven’t got the money to buy whatever they need because they keep cutting pensions, wages, everything,” says Leonidis Gialamas, a pensioner in Dafni. He applied for potatoes because prices for so many goods are up, and it made sense to save wherever he could. “Nobody knows what will happen,” he says.
In Peristeri, north of Athens, the scene was chaotic as hundreds queued up for potatoes in the parking lot of an exhibition hall on March 22. “The economy has fallen, and with all of this people are having a difficult time,” says Anastasia Alexandropoulos, a retired bank employee whose pension is €500 a month. “Now they are going to lower wages and pensions again, so we’re looking for some alternatives to get by.” She spent €9 on 30 kilos of potatoes for her family of five.
Dimitris Beretis, who says his pension has been cut “a lot,” also bought 30 kilos of potatoes in Peristeri. “For me, it’s economical, it helps me. Otherwise I would go and get potatoes for 80 cents a kilo,” he says. “This needs to continue to help people who are suffering.”
A poll conducted by Pulse RC, published on March 15 in the Pontiki newspaper, found that 88 percent of Greeks believe their economic situation has worsened in the past two years. Some professors watching the reactions to the cutbacks say many Greeks are resigned. “If they think rationally, they do prefer a lowering of their living standards than the other options, which would be Greece sliding into a Third World country situation,” says Dimitris Sotiropoulos, a political science professor at the University of Athens.
The bottom line: With pensions and state salaries down 12 percent, and the minimum wage 22 percent lower, Greeks are finding novel ways to save money.