ROME – In America around this time of year, people who want to help the poor might think in terms of providing free Thanksgiving turkeys. In Italy, however, if food is how you want to help, there’s really only one choice, and thus it is that several charitable organizations in the country have banded together to give Pope Francis two tons of pasta to distribute to the so-called “new poor” due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Four charitable organizations operating in the Taranto area in southern Italy – Stabat Mater Ets, O.D.I., Amic.A and Cantiere Laboratorio – have decided to give the pasta to the pope through his Papal Almoner, Polish Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, under the slogan, “Pasta for the pope’s poor.”
Italy, of course, is famous for its passion for pasta. It’s a staple of virtually every Italian meal, and arguments over recipes for the country’s classic pasta dishes – carbonara, for instance, or amatriciana – have the power to leave relatives not speaking to one another. According to the International Pasta Organization – appropriately enough, based in Rome – Italians are by far the world’s heaviest consumers of pasta. The average American, the group says, consumed just under 20 pounds of pasta in 2018; the typical Italian ate almost 52 pounds.
Each organizations involved in the donation to Pope Francis has a base in southern Italy, where poverty rates tend to be higher than the rest of the country. For years, Taranto itself has endured the impact of a social and economic crisis, including high levels of unemployment.
During a Nov. 17 event, the heads of each of the organizations gave the Archbishop of Taranto, Filippo Santoro, over 1,000 pounds of “Lori Puglia” pasta for the poor in his archdiocese. During that same meeting, they asked Santoro to deliver the additional pasta to Krajewski so he could give it to the poor.
Krajewski, nicknamed the pope’s “Robin Hood” since he is often seen among Rome’s poor, has been a consistent figure on the streets during Italy’s coronavirus outbreak, either handing out food to the homeless or receiving donations for the poor.
Speaking of the donation, the organizations said “you cannot stand by and watch those who are close to us in suffering, you cannot close your eyes and pretend nothing is happening.”
According to Avvenire, the official newspaper for the Italian bishops’ conference, Santoro said, “In this time marked by COVID, the right attitude is one of responsibility and sharing. And this leads to initiatives which precisely because of this are laudable, because they recall that Christian hope stops in front of nothing.”
Giuseppe Orlando, head of the Stabat Mater Est association, said, “In difficult times it would be more convenient to take care of your own garden. But if you look at your neighbor and welcome them with a smile rather than indifference and if you think that all children have the same rights, you can’t. You roll up your sleeves and help, support and comfort.”
According to Italian paper, Corriere di Taranto, the delivery to Krajewski is expected to arrive in Rome Dec. 5 and comes from the “Lori Puglia” company’s branch in the city of Altamura. The firm is one of Italy’s leading pasta producers, offering more than 100 varieties.
Italy is currently in the throes of a new outbreak of the coronavirus, which is already sending some regions back into lockdown. As of Nov. 21, Italy recorded 34,767 new cases of COVID-19, and 692 new deaths related to the disease.
Several regions have already been declared “red zones,” meaning strict quarantine measures are in place, while other regions are currently declared as either “orange” or “yellow” zones, where restrictions are looser but still take a toll on businesses, such as restaurants and bars, which are required to close at 6p.m., and museums, cinemas, and gyms, which have all been closed.
New government orders are expected to be announced Dec. 3 for the holiday season, which will likely be heavily impacted by coronavirus restrictions, from public celebrations to private family dinners.
With restrictions still in place and a long winter ahead, there are fears that a worsening of the outbreak and subsequent quarantine measures could take an even greater toll on families already feeling the sting of Italy’s 3-month lockdown in the spring.
According to information released by the Italian branch of international charity Caritas, from April to May one in two families reported a drop in income related to the coronavirus lockdown, with 15 percent of families losing either half or all of their income.
Since the beginning of the outbreak in late February and early March, Caritas has been monitoring the situation on the ground, conducting three different phases of observance.
An initial period of monitoring in April and a second in June showed a strong increase in people who needed support at the diocesan and parish levels. Roughly 450,000 people came on behalf of their families to seek assistance, though the numbers, based on data provided from 149 diocesan Caritas offices, are widely believed to be underreported.
Characteristic of those seeking support during this time, according to Caritas, are the “new poor,” meaning people who for the first time have experienced either poverty or economic difficulty severe enough that they need to ask for help.
Most of those who sought support during the spring lockdown were unemployed or temporary workers who fell through societal safety nets, watching as whatever savings they had slowly dried up and it became increasingly difficult to pay the bills and put food on the table.
New problems also started to arise, particularly for families caring for members with a disability, or whose children are now undergoing distance-learning, but who lack the necessary equipment and a stable WIFI connection. Tensions inside the home have increased, and the psychological toll is also being noticed, as more people are struggling with depression from long periods of isolation.
Caritas and several other charitable organizations have rallied to provide support to the increasing number of outstretched hands. With the help of some 62,000 volunteers, Caritas itself has reached out through telephone listening centers and meal delivery systems, as their soup kitchens have been shut down.
Information Caritas collected over the summer indicated that once Italy reopened in May and June, there was a slight improvement reported by 54 percent of dioceses, but on average, some 1,200 people or families per diocese are still in need of help.
In terms of the future, it’s hard to predict what the outcome may be; whether the slight improvement seen over the summer will continue to grow, or whether the cold winter months will thrust the country further backwards should harsher, nationwide restrictions be imposed.
According to data from the charity, from May-September 2019 until May-September 2020, there has been a 12.7 increase in the number of people asking for assistance. Even in pre-pandemic Italy, meaning as early as 2019, the percentage of those living in “absolute poverty” has more than doubled since 2007, the year before the great economic crisis of 2008, Caritas has found.
Women have been disproportionately impacted by poverty, as well as young people between 18-34, as employment opportunities are increasingly rare.
Based on their information, Caritas estimates that going forward, there will be “a new phase of the ‘normalization’ of poverty,” particularly as winter trudges on and the coronavirus continues to spread.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen