Food bank set up in Latvia to help those worst hit by financial crisis

The financial crisis has especially hit a new member of EU, resulting in 8 percent of Latvians registered below the poverty line. Once enjoying a record breaking economic boom, it now relies on IMF loans to survive.

Latvia speculated aggressively on international markets, leaving this so-called Baltic tiger vulnerable when the crisis hit. Those with loans and mortgages were suddenly seriously short of money.

“If Brussels just sneezed, we in Latvia already had a bad case of the flu,” said Ivars Andins, press secretary of the Maxima chain of supermarkets. “A very small and a very open economy felt the world problems more painfully than the others. And we are experiencing our own mistakes much more painfully, too.”

Latvia's unemployment soared to over 20 percent. Middle class families with houses and cars couldn't afford to put food on the table – and almost 8 percent of the population registered below the poverty line.

“Just a few years ago we could never imagine giving food to people – in this EU country – would ever be needed, but the situation showed that it is needed, so we decided to start it,” said Ansis Berzins, coordinator of the Food Bank organization.

The Food Bank relies on donations of money and food to supplement the diets of hard-off families. The charity raised half a million dollars in 2009, money vitally needed as the government is failing to support those in need.

“It all came too soon and created a sort of a traffic jam,” said Ilona Jursevska from the Latvian Welfare Ministry. “The social services were not prepared for an influx of people who needed aid all at once.”

Unable to rely on their leaders, Latvians have dipped into their pockets – and cupboards – to help each other out. And it is not always the rich who give the most.

“The donors are often not the richest sort of people,” Andins said. “More often than not, we notice, they're women with children. And quite often it's children who say: let’s leave a donation.”

A regular food pack includes tinned pork and fish, sugar, condensed milk, flour, stock cubes, pasta, cooking oil and much more. It’s this food that shows how deep the financial crisis has cut in Latvia, and until the families affected get more work, this food will only be a temporary comfort, not a cure.