The continuing fall in household income in Spain is causing many families to cut down on basic necessities such as food and it is estimated that a quarter of under-16, or 2.3 million are at risk of malnutrition, according to a recent statement by Gabriel González-Bueno, responsible for Child Policies at UNICEF in Spain.
“First they lower the quality of the food and buy cheaper. They stop buying meat and fish, later vegetables and fresh fruit. Instead they eat a lot of pasta and rice which do not contain all the necessary nutrients. Lastly, they reduce the amount of food they eat” said Gonzalez-Bueno.
He warned that this food deficit affects a child’s development as well as increasing the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and infections.
Following the imposition of successive austerity measures by the country’s main two parties, first the Socialists and now the Conservatives (PSOE and PP), the social conditions of post-civil war Spain are returning.
Children are facing rapidly increasing levels of poverty and malnutrition. According to the UNICEF report “Child Well-being in Rich Countries: A comparative overview”, Spain has slipped down the rankings—from fifth out of 21 in the early 2000s to nineteenth out of 29 countries in 2009-2010. Over a quarter of under-16-years-olds—some 2.3 million—are now at risk of malnutrition. (This is defined as not eating the 2,100 calories a day recommended by the World Health Organisation.)
Spain’s ranking will have worsened over the last three years as unemployment has since soared to 27% of the working population (over 58% of young people). There are now over 760,000 households with children where no adult works, 46,000 more than last year. Some 14.4% of children live in households with a high poverty rate, up from 13.7% last year.
Another recent report by the Catalan Ombudsman (Síndic de Greuges) revealed that the risk of poverty amongst under 16-year-olds in Catalonia—one of the richest regions in Spain—stands at 28%, approximately 345,000 children. Almost 50,000 Catalan children are in families who cannot afford to buy meat or fish at least once every two days. There are 750 children under sixteen with severe nutritional problems related to extreme poverty and low incomes.
Conxi Martínez, vice-president of the Federation of Organisations for the Care and Education of Children and Adolescents (FEDAIA) which brings together 78 organizations providing meals to more than 35,000 children and youth, said child malnutrition is the direct result of families being hit by unemployment and severe economic problems. Children have no proper clothing, do not eat properly, do not have space to do homework or play at home and do not attend after-school activities and entertainment due to their parents’ lack of resources.
The three-month summer school break makes the situation worse because poorer families do not have access to subsidised school meals, which have already been cut by half as a result of regional government spending cuts, according to the parent organizations CEAPA.
Recent cases have shown the terrible side-effects of increasing child malnutrition. In Alicante, three children were hospitalised at the end of July due to an outbreak of tuberculosis, a disease previously considered eradicated in Spain. The Department of Health confirmed that one of the reasons the children fell ill was related to poor nutrition.
In Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, an elementary school opened during the summer vacations to offer English courses, but the main aim was to provide children from poorer families with at least one hot meal a day. The region currently has one of the highest unemployment levels in Spain at 40%, and child poverty levels are around 30% of the population. The Island’s education department said that 16% of students were not eating in their school canteens because their parents could not afford to pay for meals.
In Andalusia, with a jobless rate of 36%, the regional government was forced to offer a program in conjunction with local councils and charities in 57 schools throughout the region. Over the course of the summer it provides three meals a day for up to 4,000 children.
In Barcelona, a primary school head told El País, “Sometimes, a child comes to you with stomach-ache in the morning and if you ask, maybe you discover that the last thing they ate was a snack at seven in the evening the day before.”