To help children plunged into poverty by Spain s grinding recession, several regional governments have stepped up aid programmes for needy students by boosting budgets for free breakfasts or keeping schools open over the summer so children can eat in the canteen.
Spain s powerful regional governments are responsible for education and healthcare and three of them — Andalucia, Catalonia and the Canary Islands — have in recent week announced new measures to help children experiencing hunger that are centred on the public school system.
“Poverty has increased a great deal among children,” said Gabriel Gonzalez, head of childhood policy at the Spanish branch of the United Nations Children s Fund (UNICEF).
Spain, the eurozone s fourth-largest economy, is still struggling to overcome the aftermath of a property bubble that imploded in 2008, destroying millions of jobs and sending debt levels soaring.
The country s unemployment rate shot to a 27.16 percent in the first quarter of 2013, the highest level since Spain returned to democracy after the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975.
The situation for families has gotten worse year after year and children have been especially hard-hit, according UNICEF figures.
Nearly 2.3 million Spanish children, or 27.2 percent, lived under the poverty line in 2011, said Gonzalez.
“It is child poverty that has increased the most and we started from a level that was already high,” he said.
“What some regional governments are beginning to address cases where children go hungry at home, not just cases where they had an unbalanced diet,” he added.
The regional government of Spain s northeastern region of Catalonia announced Thursday that it will draw up a list of schoolchildren suffering from severe food shortages to target them for aid.
The programme is inspired by one already in place in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia and Spain s second-largest city, which has already identified 2,800 students facing food shortages because of the economic downturn.
“They sometimes skip a meal for example, but in no case can we speak of malnutrition,” she added.
Barcelona s social services, after a case by case analysis, concluded that most of the 2,800 schoolchildren were already receiving some form of state benefits and new support was only granted to 703 children and their families on the list.
Barcelona city hall has already doubled the amount allocated to canteen services to five million euros ($6.5 million) in the 2012-13 school year from 2.5 million euros in the previous school year.
Demand for state aid has increased since 2008, when Spain s economic crisis began, the Barcelona city hall spokeswoman said.
In Catalonia, 64,000 students receive aid in the canteen this school year, up from 56,900 at the beginning of Spain s economic crisis in the 2008-09 school year, according to figures from the Catalan regional government, which is run by the conservative Convergence and Union (CiU) party.
The government of the southwestern region of Andalucia, Spain s most populous region, on Monday started providing free breakfast of milk and fruit as well as an afternoon snack to around 11,000 needy students.
The programme is part of a package of measures approved by the regional government of Andalucia, run by the Socialist Party and the far-left United Left, in April “to fight against social exclusion”.
The region already provides a free lunch to around 70,000 needy children.
“If we did not implement such measures, we would be leaving minors unprotected, and they are the most vulnerable,” said Magdalena Sanchez, the director of social services for the regional government of Andalucia.
Andalucia has been especially hard-hit by the economic downturn, with a jobless rate of 36 percent.
The regional government of the Canary Islands, which is struggling with a jobless rate of 33 percent, announced it would keep 132 schools across the archipelago open this summer so that around 8,000 needy schoolchildren could eat in the canteen.