Since coronavirus swept across Italy a year ago, the line outside Milan’s Pane Quotidiano charity has grown and grown.
“I’m ashamed to be here. But otherwise I would have nothing to eat,” said Giovanni Altieri, 60, who has been coming every day since the nightclub where he worked was shut under virus regulations.
“I had a good salary, but I’m at rock bottom here. I have no income and live off my savings,” he told AFP.
Every day, 3,500 people turn up at the two distribution points run in Milan by the charity, which hands out surplus food it receives from a range of organisations, as well as through individual donations.
Milan is the centre of Italy’s industrial north, and one of the richest cities in Europe. But as the pandemic has battered the country, poverty rates in the area have soared.
Some of those standing in line hide their faces with a scarf or bag, fearful of being recognised.
Many leave with several packages – one for each member of their family. Inside, there is milk, yoghurt, cheese, biscuits, sugar, tuna, a kiwi, a tiramisu and some bread.
Such sights were once rare on the streets of Milan, but across the wealthy north of Italy, more than 720,000 people have fallen below the poverty line in the last year.
Throughout Italy, the number of people in poverty jumped by one million in 2020 to 5.6 million, a 15-year high, according to national statistics agency Istat.
Poverty rates are higher in the south, which has long been poorer, but at 11.1 percent, compared to 9.4 percent in the north, the gap is narrowing.
“The queues have increased with Covid, there are more young people and more undeclared workers who have no right to social benefits,” said Claudio Falavigna, a 68-year-old volunteer at Pane Quotidiano, which has been running for 123 years.
“And there are also members of the middle classes, from the world of entertainment and events,” he said.
He recognises them “as they still dress well, they are elegant – it’s a question of dignity”.
Pre-pandemic, the region of Lombardy, which includes Milan, accounted for 22 percent of Italy’s GDP.
In 2019, the region had a per capita income of 39,700 euros (47,000 dollars) a year – well above the European average.
But it was also the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak last year that knocked Italy off its feet, and has so far left more than 100,000 people dead.
“The shock of the pandemic reduced to zero the revenues of many categories of workers, notably the self-employed, who number many in the towns of the north,” David Benassi, professor of sociology at the Bicocca University in Milan, told AFP.
And although a new citizenship income for the lowest paid came into effect in 2019 and is widespread in the south of Italy, many in the north often fall through the cracks of state support.
“Many families who fell into poverty in 2020 don’t fulfil the income and asset requirements,” said Benassi.
The worst hit are women and young people, who often have precarious jobs, noted Mario Calderini, professor of social innovation at Milan Polytechnic.
“Women have paid a heavy price in this crisis, as have families with underage children,” he said.