BELGRADE: Every morning at rush hour in a Belgrade bakery, Lidija Milanovic buys her usual breakfast – two croissants. But she takes only one, leaving the other for someone who cannot afford it.
In Serbia, a country hard-hit by the economic crisis, three young Internet employees have launched a website to help the poor which calls on citizens to buy an additional “solidarity meal” that will be offered to those in need.
“It’s great that someone has found such a simple way to help people, without spending a lot of time or energy,” said Milanovic, a 37-year-old businesswoman who learned about the initiative on social networks.
Jovana Bogavac, a high school student queuing behind Milanovic, was curious about what was going on. After hearing an explanation of the project – called “Solidarity Grub” (Solidarna Klopica) – she decided to join in.
“A great idea!” she said. “In this neighborhood I often see people digging in garbage cans for food, but I didn’t feel comfortable approaching them to offer help. This is the way to do it.”
Official statistics show that 9.2 percent of Serbia’s 7.2 million people live in absolute poverty, on less than one euro ($1.35) a day. Almost one-fifth of the population lives on less than four euros a day.
For children, the number living in absolute poverty rises to 12.2 percent, while some 6.2 percent suffer from malnutrition.
Solidarity Grub was started in April by three 20-something employees at Internet portal Kioskpages.com, an online catalog of goods, services and special promotions.
They say they were inspired by an online video about people in Italy leaving coffees for the homeless.
“We liked the idea,” coordinator Nina Milos, 24, told AFP. But they wanted to offer more so opted for food.
The trio first contacted bakeries, since they wanted lots of people to participate and baked goods are relatively affordable.
Their website advertises the bakeries and includes an interactive map locating them. So far some 60 bakeries have joined in.
Surprisingly, in a country where the unemployment rate stands at 24 percent, the action has spread.
“This project is successful because it doesn’t require much personal engagement, and the costs are minimal,” said psychologist Anika Stojanovic.
“Also, as previous experience has shown us, people with the lowest or lower income react faster and stronger to projects like this, because they can imagine themselves in such a needy situation,” she added.
At the bakery where Milanovic buys her morning croissants, saleswoman Silvija said the project has been a success.
“At first I didn’t believe in it ... but there are more and more people who are leaving food for others,” she said, putting collected food in a basket in the window so those who are hungry can see it’s available.
A poster in the window also advertises that the bakery is part of the “Solidarity Grub” initiative.
The most difficult part has been getting out the information to potential users, many whom have little to no Internet access.
To spread the word, the organizers have arranged for large displays publicizing the project as well as advertising in free newspapers and networking with homeless shelters and advocacy groups.
They have also appealed to local residents to tell the homeless people in their neighborhood.
“When we see someone digging in garbage cans we go out to give him food and tell him that he can find it at our place, for free, every day,” said Silvija at the bakery.
Mirjana, a jobless mother of three whose family survives on her husband’s modest construction worker’s wages, saw a television report on Solidarity Grub.
Her family had been skipping meals and on some days didn’t eat at all.
“Now we have at least one meal every day,” said Mirjana, who is in her 40s and travels almost an hour to get free food.
She said her family still depends on neighbors who give them food, but what the bakery provides is sometimes enough to cover two meals a day.
The team behind the idea now want to expand it outside Serbia – they have already started a project in Macedonia – and offer more than food such as clothing and toiletries.
To coordinator Milos, the Solidarity Grub project is a source of pride.
“Life is not easy in Serbia. When people show such solidarity it really deserves praise. That’s the best thing that has happened to me!”