As Global Food Prices Soar, Even Wealthy Finland Sees Food Queues Flourish

by Thilaka Ravi on  May 16, 2008 at 2:50 PM General Health News
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Reijo Miettinen, 62, never had to worry about going hungry until global food prices soared and he had to join a growing number of Finns forced to turn to charity to fill their bellies.
 As Global Food Prices Soar, Even Wealthy Finland Sees Food Queues Flourish
As Global Food Prices Soar, Even Wealthy Finland Sees Food Queues Flourish

Miettinen, a pensioner with thinning grey hair, eagerly shows off the day's catch: bread, ham, milk and a couple of ready-made meals -- all for free courtesy of a group called Veikko and Lahja Hursti's Acts of Charity.

"After I pay my rent and buy a monthly bus pass, I don't have much money left. That's why I come here," he told AFP as the food queue behind him circled around the yard before disappearing around a corner.

Miettinen is not alone in complaining that sky-rocketing food prices have made it difficult in recent months to make ends meet.

According to the World Bank, 33 countries around the world face political and social disturbances due to rising food and energy prices.

Few would have expected Finland, one of the world's wealthiest nations, to feel the pinch.

But the Nordic country, which has long aimed to smooth out all class difference in its generous welfare state, has experienced growing income disparity in recent years, leaving the poor trailing ever further behind.

At a time when the rich have never been richer, charities report that in the space of just one month, from March to April this year, the number of people queuing for food and other assistance had doubled.

"For a long time we had 600-700 people queuing for food. Now we have had 1,200-1,300 people," said Heikki Hursti, who runs the charity his parents founded at the end of the 1960s.

People who drop by the charity for a free meal are retirees, unemployed and homeless people, students and even ordinary families with children.

"When I ask why they come here, they tell me they need help because food prices have increased," Hursti explains.

According to Statistics Finland, around 11 percent of Finland's 5.3 million inhabitants and 12 percent of families with children are considered poor, meaning their annual income amounts to less than 60 percent of the median income.

In 2006, the average monthly wage in Finland was 2,634 euros (4,091 dollars), which is not as high as it may sound considering the steep cost of living in the Nordic country.

More people have also been lining up at the Salvation Army's Helsinki office, and appointments at its welfare office are already fully booked for the next four weeks.

"Normally Christmastime is the busiest for us, but now I have been saying that it has been like Christmastime this spring," said Raili Nurminen, a Salvation Army social worker, adding that she was particularly concerned that more families needed help.

"Social benefits for families have stayed the same, while the cost of living has increased," she explained.

While the situation is dire for some Finns, Finland remains one of the countries least hit by the current global food crisis.

Finns saw their salaries jump nearly 50 percent on average between 1995 and 2006, figures from Statistics Finland show.

In about the same time frame, the percentage of income Finns spent on food and non-alcoholic beverages dropped from 15 to just 11 percent, with many opting to spend their excess cash on cars, electronics and holidays instead.

And while food prices have grown at an unexpected pace in recent months, rising by 9.5 percent in March compared to the same month a year ago, the increase has been far less than the European Union average of 11.4 percent, according to numbers from Eurostat and the Pellervo economic research institute, PTT.

For all of 2008, PTT forecasts an average food price hike in the Nordic country of 7.0 percent compared to last year.

Statistics meanwhile show that while the gap between high and low wages has stayed in check after Finland's economic recession of the 1990s, the rich are getting richer thanks to capital income from dividends, rents, and a rise in real estate prices.

"The biggest reason for increased income disparity is the rise of capital incomes and their low taxation. There is strong growth in the highest incomes," said senior researcher Ilpo Suoniemi from the Labour Institute for Economic Research.

"Income disparity is apparent nowadays in stores, when people choose their groceries. It is no longer just about what hobbies you can afford to have or where you can travel or what to wear," said Elina Ingman, a welfare worker in the northern town of Kajaani.

One person who can not afford to show off in the check-out line with foie gras and caviar is Markku Rinta, who has lined up in the same food queue as Miettinen in the hopes of getting something to put on the dinner table.

"It's more difficult to get a job as a storage worker when you are approaching 50," the unemployed labourer complained, saying employers these days "want somebody in his twenties who has twenty years of work experience."

Rinta, who found his way to Hursti's charity after a friend told him about the place, has been here a few times.

"I don't have money to buy food," he said. "Prices have increased insanely."

Source: AFP

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