ATHENS — As an elementary school principal, Leonidas Nikas is used to seeing children play, laugh and dream about the future. But recently he has seen something altogether different, something he thought was impossible in Greece: children picking through school trash cans for food; needy youngsters asking playmates for leftovers; and an 11-year-old boy, Pantelis Petrakis, bent over with hunger pains. “He had eaten almost nothing at home,” Mr. Nikas said, sitting in his cramped school office near the port of Piraeus, a working-class suburb of Athens, as the sound of a jump rope skittered across the playground. He confronted Pantelis’s parents, who were ashamed and embarrassed but admitted that they had not been able to find work for months. Their savings were gone, and they were living on rations of pasta and ketchup.
The Greek economy is in free fall, having shrunk by 20 percent in the past five years. The unemployment rate is more than 27 percent, the highest in Europe, and 6 of 10 job seekers say they have not worked in more than a year. Those dry statistics are reshaping the lives of Greek families with children, more of whom are arriving at schools hungry or underfed, even malnourished, according to private groups and the government itself.
Last year, an estimated 10 percent of Greek elementary and middle school students suffered from what public health professionals call “food insecurity,” meaning they faced hunger or the risk of it, said Dr. Athena Linos, a professor at the University of Athens Medical School who also heads a food assistance program at Prolepsis, a nongovernmental public health group that has studied the situation. “When it comes to food insecurity, Greece has now fallen to the level of some African countries,” she said.
Unlike those in the United States, Greek schools do not offer subsidized cafeteria lunches. Students bring their own food or buy items from a canteen. The cost has become insurmountable for some families with little or no income. Their troubles have been compounded by new austerity measures demanded by Greece’s creditors, including higher electricity taxes and cuts in subsidies for large families. As a result, parents without work are seeing their savings and benefits rapidly disappear….