The potato, introduced to Greeks after independence in the 19th century to bolster the diets of the poor, is turning into a symbol of their latest struggle.
Farmers are mobilizing to sell their produce directly to austerity-hit citizens, cutting out middlemen such as supermarkets and grocers. On average, they sell a kilogram of potatoes from the backs of trucks for about 33 euro cents (44 U.S. cents), or half what it costs in a store.
“Greeks find themselves in a situation where we don’t have enough to survive,” Vasiliki Kladia, 43, unemployed for four years with three children, said in the Athens suburb of Dafni after placing her order. “There are no jobs anywhere. Wages and pensions are very low and everyone is in debt.”
Nowhere in Europe is experiencing the impact of measures to reshape national finances more than Greece, the epicenter of the region’s debt crisis. The government has committed to more than 33 billion euros of spending cuts and tax increases announced over the past two years, as its part of a deal with European partners to keep the country afloat and in the euro.
As the economy endures its fifth year of recession, measures include property taxes paid through utility bills, an additional 12 percent reduction in pensions and salaries for state workers this year and a 22 percent cut in the minimum wage to 683 euros a month. Earlier this month, Greece completed the biggest-ever debt swap with holders of its bonds.
“There is great recession fatigue in Greece and the social cost is very high,” Stathis Kalyvas, professor of political science at Yale University, said in an interview from the U.S. “The population will tough it out. There is a solid majority in favor of remaining in the euro.”
Dafni, a municipality of 35,000, is one of dozens helping its residents save money by connecting residents with farmers to get cheaper potatoes. In less than a week, more than 2,500 people came to the local government building in the town to place their orders for 75 tons, or three truckloads, Mayor Michalis Stavrianoudakis said.
The sales have proliferated since February as municipalities put up posters and word spread among Greeks on the Internet and through local news reports.
“People can’t hold out for very long, especially when new austerity measures now are implemented,” Stavrianoudakis said during a March 14 interview in Dafni. “The success of the program has led to people asking if we can do the same for olive oil and even for lamb, which is traditionally eaten at Easter.”
In another suburb, hundreds of people lined up in the blistering sun in the parking lot of the Peristeri Exhibition Center to pick up their orders after two 18-wheeler trucks from northern Greece arrived with more than 60 tons of produce.
“If we all start buying straight from the farmers, without middlemen, they will eventually lower their prices,” said Ioannides Kyriakos, a 72-year-old pensioner who was hauling two bags to his car. “It will continue. Today its potatoes, tomorrow it will be rice and the next day it will be olive oil.”
The “potato movement,” as it’s known in Greece, began in early February in the north of the country and spread to municipalities and on private websites. In Dafni, a 20-kilogram sack of spuds costs 6.50 euros and people can order up to twice that amount through the municipality.
“The majority of the people haven’t got the money to buy whatever they need because they keep cutting pensions, wages, everything,” said Leonidis Gialamas, 68, a pensioner in Dafni. “Nobody knows what will happen.”
Greece’s gross domestic product shrank 7.5 percent in the fourth quarter, compared with a year earlier, according to the Hellenic Statistical Authority. Unemployment in December rose to a record 21 percent and reached 51 percent for young Greeks.
Greek police reported March 11 that robberies and thefts rose by an average 10 percent with many of the incidents involving small amounts of money or property that police refer to as crimes of “emergency or survival.”
Eighty-eight percent of Greeks said their economic situation worsened in the past two years, according to a poll by Pulse RC published March 15 in the Pontiki newspaper. The survey was of 1,212 eligible voters.
“If they think rationally, they do prefer a lowering of their living standards than the other options, which would be Greece sliding into a third-world country situation,” said Dimitris Sotiropoulos, associate professor of political science at the University of Athens.
The potato was introduced in Greece by the first head of state, Ioannis Kapodistrias, after he became leader in 1827 as the country won independence from the Turks, said Sakis Gekas, assistant professor of modern Greek history at York University in Toronto. Greeks celebrated independence day on March 25.
Legend has it that Kapodistrias ordered the first delivery on Greek soil to be kept under guard to pique the interest of the local population and add it to their diets as the country recovered from war.
Less than 200 years later, the potato is again playing a role during tough economic times. “Patatas” are now roasted in olive oil, lemon and oregano, as fried wedges or used in moussaka, a layered dish of egg plant, minced meat and béchamel sauce.
“The potato movement has received some momentum, reflecting the needs of people not just to circumvent oligopolies and mark-ups from middlemen and large supermarkets but also to save money in these difficult times,” Gekas said.