Every day at lunchtime, a pioneering new soup kitchen set up in the Madrid suburb of Mostoles specifically aimed at feeding the swelling ranks of Spain's unemployed fills up to capacity.
Unlike soup kitchens that target the homeless, those who flock to the canteen each day are not made to wait in line outside to get in so as to avoid curious glances from others out running errands or making their way to work.
Advertisement"This way they are less ashamed to come, we do everything to normalise their situation," said municipal councilor Vanesa Martinez.
Local officials decided to set up the canteen in the city of 206,000 at the beginning of March after noticing that "more and more families were not able to make ends meet," she added.
On a recent visit 220 people -- women with young children, single men and elderly couples -- sat at 15 large tables covered with paper sheets in a heated hall over plates of rice, fish and salad provided by the conservative municipal government.
Most who come to the soup kitchen belong to Spain's "new poor" -- former construction and service sector workers who have lost their jobs in recent months due to the collapse last year of a decade-long real estate boom.
The country's unemployment rate hit 15.5 percent in February, the highest level in the 27-nation European Union and the Bank of Spain predicted Friday that it will hit a whopping 19.4 percent next year.
"I was going crazy. I was tempted by delinquency, by stealing, to meet my needs. So when the soup kitchen opened, I didn't hesitate to come for a minute," said Jose Maria Garcia, 34, as he broke out into a smile.
He lost his job in construction 14 months ago and stopped being entitled to collect jobless benefits five months ago.
At his side was Gladys Zapata, a 63-year-old nurse who has been unemployed for two years now and who moved to Spain from Chile two decades ago.
"This gives us at least one complete meal per day, and its really good," said Zapata, who wore sunglasses on her head as she ate her meal and whose blond hair was impeccably combed.
About 60 percent of those who eat at the canteen are immigrants like Zapata who, unlike Spaniards, often do not have extended family members who they can turn to for help when times get tough.
"But we are getting more and more Spaniards," said 63-year-old Maria Teresa Rodriguez who runs the soup kitchen with an army of volunteers.
The criteria to eat at the soup kitchen are strict. Ony unemployed residents of Mostoles who, after paying all their bills, are left with no more than 90 euros (120 dollars) per month to provide food for their household can enter.
According to labour ministry data there were in February some 16,400 registered unemployed in Mostoles, the hometown of Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas, and the number is expected to rise.
Martinez said the city will keep the soup kitchen running "until the economic crisis ends".
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