* EU food aid to be cut to 12 mln from 20 mln euros
* About one million in dire need in Portugal
* Requests for food aid rising
By Daniel Alvarenga
LISBON, Sept 15 Spending cuts to European Union
food aid programmes could leave Portugal's growing ranks of poor
with even emptier plates.
Western Europe's poorest country is likely to lose 40
percent of 20 million euros ($27 million) in food aid it gets
from Brussels every year, according to Isabel Jonet, who heads
the Food Banks charity.
Her institution supports 390,000 poor people out of
Portugal's 10.5 million population. They have been helped by the
EU "Food for the Needy" programme but it is due to be replaced
by the Fund for European Aid.
The new fund will have fewer resources for food, Jonet told
Reuters. And the cash-strapped government has made no
preparations to deal with the problem, she said.
"Unlike in other countries, Portugal does not yet have a
plan to make up for the changes or for a delay in the new scheme
coming through, so there may be an interruption in our
distribution of food," Jonet said.
The number of those in need in Portugal is rising as
unemployment hit record highs this year.
The economy has struggled through its worst recession in
decades due to austerity measures imposed under a
78-billion-euro EU and International Monetary Fund bailout.
"Unfortunately more and more people need this help by the
day. Although small, it makes a huge difference," said a tearful
Maria Mendes, 50, picking up food staples at a charity that
caters for 300 people in Lisbon's old neighbourhood of Graca.
Official data released in July showed that last year, 22
percent of the Portuguese were suffering from material
deprivation, including almost 9 percent from severe deprivation.
The minimum wage in Portugal is 566 euros a month, compared
with neighbouring Spain's 753 euros.
People are considered materially deprived when their income
is not enough to meet basic needs like having a meal of fish or
meat every other day, pay for rent, or warm their homes.
The government says it is looking at the food aid issue but
gave no concrete promises to answer Jonet's concerns.
"We are working to ensure that the funds are enough to keep
such a fundamental project going," Social Affairs Minister Pedro
Mota Soares said. "Let's finish the negotiation process in
Europe and then we'll see where we stand."
Although the current Food for the Needy scheme ends this
year, there is no set deadline for the European Parliament and
European Council to agree on the aid fund which will replace it.
At stake is about a third of the 44 tonnes of food that
Portugal's Food Bank distributes through a network of charities
and public partners every day. The rest comes from the food
industry and citizens' donations.
Asked to comment on Jonet's concerns, Jonathan Todd, a
European Commission spokesman for employment and social affairs,
said he could not provide a country breakdown as the new fund's
regulations are still being discussed.
He confirmed that the current programme would end this year,
and the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived that will
replace it envisages co-financing by member states.
But overall, the new fund should increase the resources
available to make assistance broader than just food, he said.
CRY FOR HELP
Meeting deficit targets and reining in public debt may be
the main concerns of lenders trying to get Portugal's economy
back on its feet, but for many Portuguese the economic cure has
"Requests for help are piling up. We have many new
unemployed and members of middle-class families who lost their
jobs and now need help," said Susana Ambrosio, director of the
Maria Roque Pereira Foundation, a Food Bank partner where Mendes
gets her food basket.
Mendes, who had to quit her supermarket job after being
diagnosed with cancer, has a husband who is unemployed and two
children studying, had a message for the EU food policy makers.
"Please think about those who struggle, many of them are not
speaking up because they are ashamed. Please consider all the
other bad things the government is already doing to us," she
(Editing by Andrei Khalip and Angus MacSwan)