BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union is considering a roughly 75 percent cut in funding for a program that helps feed 18 million of its poorest citizens.
The cuts, set to take effect after New Year's, would come at a time of rising unemployment and consumer food prices in many parts of Europe, as well as overall economic turmoil on the continent. The looming cuts already have raised fears among people who rely heavily on the program.
"We poor, small people, we cannot face up to this," said Rene Waltener, 41, who is unemployed and married with four children. "We sometimes have difficulties getting through the month, so a bit of milk here, a tin of cassoulet, a bit of yogurt — the kids are happy with that and it allows us to continue."
The Food for the Deprived program dates back to 1987. At first, it relied heavily on food surpluses from farms that benefited from a bloated and inefficient subsidy regime. But over time, as the farming became more efficient, food was increasingly purchased on the market to keep the program going.
In recent years, Germany and other countries have objected to that practice, saying the program is not living up to its original mandate of doing something useful with excess products from farms. Germany won a legal case in April to outlaw the practice of purchasing the food on the market.
The EU's 27 farm ministers will assess the program next Thursday in Luxembourg. On the table is a proposal to keep the program going at euro500 million ($690 million) through legal changes instead of moving to just euro113 million ($155 million), but at present it does not appear it will get a sufficient majority.
Harry Gschwindt of the Brussels Food Bank put the potential cut in simple terms.
"This year we received 19 different products. Next year it's only going to be four. It's tomato soup, it's rice, milk rice and chicken," he said. Gone are milk, sugar, corn and fish, and other contributions.
The problems involving the program predate the economic and currency crisis that is turning governments throughout the union towards penny-pinching measures, and EU Farm Commissioner Dacian Ciolos has said the problem is purely legal since the budget already has the funds written in.
The Czech Republic is among the countries that object to the current program's approach. Its ambassador to the EU, Milena Vicenova, said that the EU farm policy program "is not the proper and the right instrument to be used for, let's say, social help."
She said it also doesn't take national sensitivities into account. "We don't have a common explanation of what a 'poor person' really is or what it really means. Every national scheme slightly differs," Vicenova said.
Last year, a British House of Lords committee also saw no need to give to Brussels what London could do itself.
"National governments are best-placed to organize food distribution to poor people," committee chair Lord Carter of Coles said.
With winter approaching, some EU officials are hoping for an agreement that allows for the program to continue at the same level of funding.
"The money is available and can be allocated if we can get a political accord," Ciolos said earlier this month.
Brussels Videojournalist Mark D. Carlson contributed to this story.