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Every year thousands of tourists toss coins into the Trevi Fountain in Rome. While they are hoping for good luck, they are probably unaware that those coins eventually make their way to the local Caritas, a Catholic charity and aid agency. One of the initiatives this money supports is the “Solidarity Emporiums,” points-based supermarkets located across the Italian capital, where people who are struggling to make ends meet can obtain food and other necessities for free.
Since the initiative first began 15 years ago, the Emporiums have helped nearly 40,000 people and distributed over 5,000 tons of food, according to Caritas Rome’s 2023 report. Beyond the numbers, these markets have become a welcoming space, where those who come can re-find their footing, starting from an act as simple as food shopping.
Aleteia visited the first and biggest Emporium, in the Casilina neighborhood in Eastern Rome, to understand how this initiative helps those in need.
“The idea is to offer economic support while respecting one’s dignity” said Daniela Roggero, a Caritas worker who focuses on the coordination between the central Casilina Emporium and the other four located in the city. “The fundamental characteristic of the Emporium is that it is a welcoming place, where people feel respected even in their fragility.”
100 Families access the Emporium per day
The Casilina Emporium was the first to be founded in 2008 to try and help people struggling in light of that year’s economic crisis. Today it has three full-time workers, the manager, and 40 volunteers and is open everyday. Mothers with babies in arms, old men huddled in their coats, Italians and foreigners alike, waited patiently in front of the glass doors to the dark orange building, as the volunteers let them into the 500-square-meter space (nearly 5,500 square feet), filled with shelves stacked with food. Currently the Casilina Emporium is serving around 100 families a day.
“There are many foreigners who come here. After the COVID-19 pandemic we saw an increase in Italian families. There are also many elderly, as often their pension is not enough,” said Lucia Montebello, the manager of the Casilina Emporium. “I have seen families that do not have electricity or gas or are temporarily living in their car. We see that they only take dried products because they cannot cook them or do not have a fridge.”
According to Caritas Rome’s 2023 report, 51% of those who accessed the Emporium since 2008 were Italian and the other half represented 98 different nationalities. The second biggest population to access were Nigerians, counting for 4,7%, followed by Romanians, amounting to 4,6%.
How it works
Once Caritas determines that a family or individual is eligible to shop, they are given a card with 90 points per two-person family unit. The points last four weeks and can get them whatever products are available at the Emporium. For example, a box of pasta is worth between 1 or 2 points. Families with children under two can also get an additional 45-point card for items such as powdered milk or baby food.
“For families, this is a big aid because you can find many different things, especially for those with children. Saving money on diapers, for example, is already a huge help,” said a mother of three who was shopping at the supermarket with her youngest strapped to her chest. She explained that most of her salary goes to paying rent, leaving her with little left over.
The Casilina Emporium currently has 500 active cards and since 2008 has distributed over 9,000. The cards have a duration of three months and can then be renewed, based on the situation the beneficiary finds themselves in.
Several entities donate food and products to the Emporium, including the European Union. Through its Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD), it provides large quantities of essential foods annually, such as pasta or sauces. Various Italian food companies also donate, such as Central milk plant of Rome, which delivers 250 half-liter bottles of milk everyday.
The funds from the Trevi Fountain are then used to acquire goods that the Emporium isn’t able to get through these larger deliveries, such as fresh foods or meats. In an interview with Italian dailyIl Messaggero, the Rome Caritas director, Giustino Trincia, said almost 1.5 million euros were gathered from the Trevi Fountain in 2022. Individuals, schools, and other entities can and do also donate.
Caritas’ network of support
In order to get access to the supermarket, families and individuals must go through Caritas’ listening centers, which are stationed in various parishes and other locations across the city. Those working at these centers evaluate the person’s case and economic condition and offer them the various tools at Caritas’ disposal to help their situation, including medical support, professional training to enter the workforce, and access to the Emporium.
“The Emporium is one way to help among many; alone it would not be enough. […] The idea is not to give aid that makes a person dependent on it. […] We tend to want to help families re-find their autonomy,” said Daniela, explaining they work closely with the listening centers and parishes to support people according to their specific needs. “An aid like the Emporium helps you build a project. We help you for 12 months with food shopping and in the meantime we also offer help in other forms.”
At the Emporium, the workers and volunteers also directly assist those coming to shop by helping them to use their points efficiently, proposing healthy food options, or instructing foreigners on the types of products available in Italy. Daniela explained that they hope to expand Caritas’ work on nutritional education in order to “raise the level of dignity of people.”
“The idea is not ‘you are a person who is struggling and poor so take whatever there is.’ We want to explain that everyone has a right to quality products and fresh and healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables,” said Daniela. “The idea of getting groceries with points is also so that when people leave here they are able to be a smarter shopper with the little money that they may have. Educating people about shopping is fundamental.”
Beyond just food shopping
Despite the struggles that many of the people accessing the Emporium may be facing, many roll their carts with smiles on their faces, chatting with the workers and volunteers.
“The fundamental thing we do here is to welcome the families. After they come for a few months we get to know them, […], they talk to us, they listen. If you are welcoming, they open up,” said Lucia. “In these four years I have worked here, I have seen several families that then managed to pick up their lives. […] Listening to people is priceless.”
Those who volunteer “discover a world of poverty, but also of humanity, that is very beautiful. You then bring that home with you, to your family, to your job, and it generates attention, it generates sensitivity. The ‘poor’ or the ‘foreigners’ aren’t just categories but that [specific] face or that [particular] family,” Daniela reflected. Agnese, who has been volunteering at the Casilina Emporium for 10 years, says she “comes gladly” and described it as “a beautiful experience.”
“I have found some wonderful people here, who help you when they see you are struggling,” said the mother of three, smiling, her child looking up with bright round eyes. “Simply the smile that those who work and volunteer here have is already a big deal.”