ATHENS, Greece — The leader of Greece's Orthodox Church on Thursday promised to boost its campaign to provide free meals to the poor and homeless, amid the country's deepening financial crisis.
Archbishop Ieronymos visited a central Athens food bank with members of the country's national football team, to promote a campaign launched this week allowing supermarket shoppers at 10 chains and some 300 stores to donate food to church charities.
Ieronymos said the church was handing out 10,000 portions of food per day in greater Athens, with requests for a greater amount growing "every day."
"It is very saddening to see a scene like this. Thousands of people each day line up for food. That is a sad fact," Ieronymos said, as scores of immigrants waited in heavy rain for foil parcels of macaroni and meat sauce.
He also said in a radio interview: "Every day, the message we get is that more food is needed ... we must take care to consider people's dignity and that of their families."
Greece has taken harsh austerity measures since late 2009 to cut its huge budget deficits and in exchange for rescue loans from other eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund.
The cuts have caused a sharp decline in living standards, with unemployment hovering at 18 percent and the U.N. International Labor Organization warning in a recent report that 20 percent of the crisis-hit country's population is facing the risk of poverty.
Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis said the city was helping feed 200 school children of unemployed parents, following a spate of reports of malnourished students and even children fainting in class.
"There is an alarming rise in the number of homeless and people who are malnourished — and we have found cases of that in schools," Kaminis told state-run NET radio.
"In a very discreet way, the city is handling their meal — there are about 200 children. I hope that number does not increase."
Church volunteer Father Andreas, an Orthodox priest, said more young people are seeking help.
"The number of people needing help is growing every day ... We get every kind of person. Lately there are more young people who have lost their jobs," said the priest, whose small Athens parish hands out 65 food-rations per day, cooked in the church basemen by volunteers.
"We have chicken, meat and fish every day, except on days when the church observes a fast."