Under Zeus' gaze, austerity-hit Greeks queue for potatoes

By @ibtimes on

Struggling to cope with austerity, hundreds of Greeks in the town of Katerini at the foot of Mount Olympus have turned to a cheap way to do groceries: ordering potatoes on the Internet and picking them up in a parking lot.

As dawn broke on a cloudless Saturday, buyers patiently gathered to buy directly from growers at less than half the supermarket shelf price - the unemployed who struggle to make ends meet, the retirees whose pensions have been cut by the cost-saving measures and even well-heeled lawyers and women in fur.

The idea to cut out profiteering middlemen, started by a local activist group in Katerini, northern Greece, has led several other towns to seek advice on emulating the action.

Every penny counts, said Kyriaki Kotropoulou, a 41-year old jobless mother of three, as she stood in line to pick up five bags of potatoes, each containing 10 kg (22 pounds) of the produce at 25 euro cents ($0.34) apiece.

Kotropoulou was a temporary worker at the local municipality but her contract was recently terminated as part of spending cuts demanded by Greece's euro zone partners who approved a 130 billion euro bailout this week.

We no longer buy any new clothes, we no longer go out for coffee or dinner. Day in, day out, my only concern is how to feed my children and my family, she said.

SELLING 24 TONS IN 12 HOURS

Katerini, a once prosperous town and local hub for agriculture, transport and tourism, has been hit by the crisis as hard as any other in debt-laden Greece. Streets are full of shuttered shops. Pawnshops offering to buy jewellery are mushrooming. Just like everywhere else in the nation, unemployment has climbed to record levels.

The Pieria Volunteer Action Team, a group of local activists, decided to use the Internet to help people get cheap food. They first contacted a potato grower in northern Greece with surplus stock and a license to sell directly to customers.

Then they invited members and friends to place their orders on the Internet. Within 12 hours, 530 people ordered 24 tons of potatoes. We had to stop taking orders, said Elias Tsolakides, a 54-year old member of the group.

Saturday morning marked the first time the buyers gathered under the initiative.

Most came in their cars, a few filled their bicycle baskets, behind them the snow-capped summits of Mount Olympus where Zeus, king of the Gods, sat on his throne according to ancient Greek mythology.

Some of the clients, like doctors and other well-off buyers, came not because they were starving but because they wanted to make a statement against what they said was the failure of authorities to crack down on price fixers.

This is a symbolic move - everybody's income is falling but prices just don't, said Constantine Parastatides, a pensioned engineer.

According to the EU and the IMF, oligopolies, transport bottlenecks, rigid market rules and inefficient policing are key reasons why prices in Greece are not falling as fast as they should to help restore the country's competitiveness.

Under Greece's bailout plan, prices will be more tightly monitored and the competition authority given more teeth.

There is shameless profiteering in the market. Market police, competition watchdogs, the authorities - nothing works, said Vassilis Anagnostopoulos, a 38-year-old firefighter whose wages have been cut 40 percent.

As soon as the Katerini initiative gathered pace, local supermarkets slashed their potato prices by half - to as low as 34 cents per kg, residents said. And now another 10 towns hope to follow suit.

The initiative also makes sense for Greek farmers. Normally squeezed by wholesalers, supermarkets and cheap potato imports from Egypt, potato grower Lefteris Kesopoulos found himself doing good business at the parking lot on Saturday.

I've made a bigger profit and I got my money in cash - not in funny checks from some wholesaler that might bounce, the 40-year-old said behind the makeshift desk in front of his truck, from where he was busy signing receipts for customers.

I will definitely do it again. ($1 = 0.7428 euros)

(Reporting by Harry Papachristou; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)

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