Polish Toledo

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Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Where have all the milk bars gone?

According to the Telegraph, more than 350 of the 500 milk bars across the country had closed by 2011. Now, Poland’s newly elected Law and Justice Party leveled another challenge for proprietors of the bars, slashing their public funding by 25%.

Typical Milk bar

For those of you who might not have the slightest clue what a milk bar is:  bar mleczny or “milk bar,” is a dying breed of state-subsidized cafeterias, which in the communist era were plentiful across Poland. The name milk bar comes from the inexpensive dairy-based meals that were served in lieu of meat during times of rationing. Milk bars first appeared in the late nineteenth century and and then became emblematic of Poland's communist past.

For incredibility low prices, they offer quick, stick-to-your-rib staples like soups,  stews, and cabbage and root vegetable salads. But these relics of a socialist economic landscape are now in danger of extinction in a more prosperous free market economy where disposable income is spent at trendier eateries. McDonald's or KFC for instance.

Since Poland boasts the most robust economy of the former Soviet Bloc and was the sole EU member state to see economic growth in the heat of the financial crisis in 2009, an onslaught of new, independently owned restaurants and international fast food joints has tilted the scales for restaurants that don't rely on state subsidies offering inexpensive food to wide audiences.

The Ministry of Finance asserts that demand for the bars has not been high enough that cuts in subsidies should not cause alarm. Many Poles take the dramatic reduction as evidence that the milk bar is an endangered species. For patrons of the cafeterias and those who grew up eating there, the end of the milk bars would mean not only the loss of a treasured piece of Polish culture, but also of one of the few places pensioners, university students, and other low-income individuals can still turn for a hot meal.

Milk bars are probably the most egalitarian places in Poland. There is a shared love of pierogi and kotlet schwabowy -Poland's version of Wiener Schnitzel - that brings Poles together from all walks of life. You'll find corporate big-wigs who have a lot of money next to the guy who is homeless, or really, really poor elderly people.

A few protesters and activists are trying to preserve the remaining milk bars. Because everyone has to eat, they are one of the most inclusive places you can imagine. For me, I can appreciate them in a museum way. And, as such Bernie Sanders' supporters should make it a point to visit one. If the Vermont socialist is elected president, soup kitchens will become the new norm in America. I'm just sayin'.



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