Poverty amidst an Economic Miracle The Skinny Kids of Chynow

Poland is often praised as being the economic miracle of post-Cold War Eastern Europe. Despite the noble efforts of many, though, the changes haven't done much to help many children from going hungry.

By and Marta Solarz in Chynow, Poland

Children at a Polish school enjoy a meal of soup.
Witold Krassowski

Children at a Polish school enjoy a meal of soup.

Dejection has a name: Chynow. In this Polish town 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Warsaw, gray buildings line the road leading from Grojec to Gora Kalwaria. It is the same bland, boxy architecture left by socialism throughout Poland. When it rains, ankle-deep puddles form along the side of the road. A traveling trader under a tarpaulin sells cheap Chinese goods from banana cartons. It's only 9 a.m., and two tipsy men are already stumbling their way past his stand. Poland's economic miracle has yet to arrive in Chynow.

The elementary school sits next to the cemetery. It is one of the few buildings with any paint, and it shines in its light pastel green.

The shrill clanging of a bell has just drawn the children to the cafeteria window, where they wait patiently as "Aunt" Renia passes each of them a bowl. Today's dish is tomato soup. The children slurp it up and smack their lips, faces disappearing behind their tipped-back bowls. Nothing goes to waste here.

Renia, a stately woman in a white smock and a ladle-holding hand on her hip, looks over her domain contentedly. She watches her charges carefully. "I notice if children aren't used to warm food at home," she says. "They're shy; they only take a few crumbs of bread." Often they won't even touch the soup and, she says, "It takes months before they dare to eat their fill."

Renia cooks for 120 children. Fifty of them can't pay the 2.5 Zloty (70 euro cents/$1.10) for a daily school lunch because their parents are too poor, and government and charitable organizations have to step in.

Success only Reaches Some

Poland's economy will probably grow this year by up to 5 percent. In Warsaw, modern office buildings reach toward the sky, and along many residential streets there are no longer any visible traces of the country's socialist past. But, in Chynow, there are children going hungry, and more than a quarter of Polish schoolchildren are growing up in poverty. Nowhere in the European Union are there so many poor children as there are in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.

"It isn't always alcoholics or people who have failed to make a living who send their children to school with empty stomachs," says Renia. "They don't even have to be unemployed anymore." In fact, despite holding jobs, more and more people in Poland cannot earn enough to feed their families.

Prices for the most important foods rose by an average of 40 percent last year. The cost of milk rose by over a third, the cost of flour by more than half. "The rise in prices is global in character," says Artur Lawniczak, the under-secretary of state at the Polish Agriculture Ministry. "And it will all get still more expensive."

Things have already gotten to the point where Little Ania's parents -- her father works in a paint factory and her mother is blind -- can only afford bread and inexpensive cheese. The 8-year-old girl is emptying her bowl of tomato soup, which she says is her favorite food. Unlike children in Warsaw, Ania wouldn't dare to dream of eating pizza or hamburgers. An unemployed person in Poland receives a maximum of 500 Zloty (€146/$228) per month for half a year. After that, welfare benefits decrease.

"It's impossible to live on that amount," says school director Malgorzata Pawelczyk. An energetic woman and with fashionably short hair and elegant make-up, Pawelczyl's 's a bit too well-dressed for the rural setting. She was born 41 years ago near Chynow, went to Warsaw to study education and then returned to the barren plains of Masovia, this region surrounding the capital.

Pawelczyk considers making sure that her charges have full stomachs at least once a day one of her most important duties. "Poor and hungry children almost never complain," she says. "They can't learn well, they withdraw and they keep their distance as much as possible from school life."

And that is disastrous. The elementary school is the center of life for Chynow's children. The only playground equipment in the bleak village is here, and there is no other place for the children to run around and play. To determine which of the children are really needy, Pawelczyk occasionally puts together teachers' groups to visit families at home and give advice to parents.

Motivational Food

In the meantime, Ania has spooned up her second bowl of tomato soup. Like the other children, she has no idea that the Polish Humanitarian Organization pays for her meal. Ironically, it is the only such project that the aid organization runs within its own country. Otherwise it subsidizes the building of wells in Darfur, helps undernourished Chechens and procures supplies for schools in Afghanistan.

For dessert, Ania receives a small carton of milk, which she now carries with her into the classroom. She doesn't like milk much, but it will fill her up later in the afternoon when she gets hungry again. And well-fed children not only learn better; they are also more socially interactive. Ania, for example, often stays longer in the schoolyard, takes part voluntarily in sports and sings in the chorus.

In this way, the food provided at Chynow's elementary school has a double effect: Not only are the children fed halfway decently; they also like coming to school.

Strictly speaking, there is also a third effect, which the program's donors point out only soberly: For some children, the free meal is the only reason to attend school at all.


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