Poland: No meat, no milk, no flour, no. . .

Niema.m It seems the most-used word in Poland these days -- "No, there is none." It relates to almost everything, but now, especially, to food. At the Hala Koszyki city market on Koszykowska Street a few days ago, there was no meat, no milk, no flour, no cheese, no cold cuts, no lemons, no potatoes or cabbage, no rice or macaroni, no coffee.


"No," a salesgirl says. "There was yesterday. I don't know when we'll get some more. There was margarine. People didn't want it. They drifted sadly away. Or waited, hoping butter might show up."

There were no jams nor preserves of any kind, not even that Polish favorite Miodowitm -- honey with strawberry. It disappeared from the shelves long ago.

Milk has been in short supply since early March. At one store, more than 100 people were in line for dairy products. "To queue so long for milk!" a woman murmurs with weary disgust.

For many years Poles have had to queue for meat (rarely for less than several hours and then often in vain). They have come to accept that as normal.

But eight months of crisis here have extended the queues to groceries, to delicatessens and candy stores, to bakeries and dairies. On March 31 three stores on one street had no bread.

At another, more than 200 people were in line. Inside there obviously were not enough loaves to supply them all.

Western readers may find that hard to comprehend 35 years after World War II. And now Poles, too, even those who remember how devastated their country was, are finding it more and more incredible.

It is not as bad as that everywhere. At another market another day there was plenty of sugar and there seemed to be enough butter to meet demand.

Maldistribution and hoarding cause much of the frustration. It even spills into Warsaw's best hotels. This correspondent, returning from a two-week absence, brought along some breakfast cereals that have long been unavailable here. But next morning the hotel's room service response to my obvious question was: "Very sorry, sir, we have no fresh milk."

Rationing should make some difference. As of April 1, meat rationing came into force. Sugar was already rationed.

But rationing will work fairly only if the new "watchdogs" policing both the stores and the speculators do their job properly. Most Poles appear to be skeptical that they will be really effective, especially considering how deeply entrenched is Poland's black market.

There are differences, too, between the regions. Gdansk -- the "cradle of the revolution" that brought the independent trade unions into existence -- has had its own rationing system for some time. It also has one of the best regional administrations in the country -- one that has faced no popular demand for a change of leaders, as many other regions have.

People in Gdansk seemed to accept the official suggestion that they limit purchases to a loaf of bread, a liter of milk, and a quarter-kilogram (about 1/2 pound) of butter per person.

"At least people seemed to see it as ensuring something for everybody from what there was," remarked an American diplomat after visiting there. Apparently it also checked panic buying. Some foodstore managers elsewhere have tried to stem the panic buying but most cannot be bothered.

Had there been a general strike this week, as threatened by Solidarity but cancelled at the last minute, there were food stocks for only 12 days, officials said. That problem is averted for the moment.

But the government is desperate. Last week the ambassadors of its Western creditor countries, including the US, were called in to be told just how desperate. They were informed, in effect, that Poland must declare a moratorium even on debt repayment if more help is not forthcoming.

Urgent appeals have gone to the West Europeans and the United States for immediate food credits or further sales to tide the country over until the next harvest.

But will Poles' patience last that long?

Warsaw Pact neighbors have already offered substantial help with food. There have been some sales from the West. But there is little evidence of it in the shops.

The Commission of the European Community proposed food aid for Poland worth $ 40 million April 1, a spokesman said. The aid would be provided at 15 percent below world prices and would include butter, cheese, milk powder, meat, sugar, barley, rye, animal fodder, and cooking oil. EC members must first agree on credits enabling Poland to buy the food.

Meanwhile, the queues are the longest this writer has seen over many years of visiting Poland. In provincial cities, the politically sensitive Silesian mining capital of Katowice, for example, they are apparently still longer.

Solidarity's decision to call off the strike may have upset its extreme militants. But the general public reaction is undoubtedly one of relief. If the threat were later to be renewed --ation -- almost certainly its sympathy for the union would diminish.

"We ought to begin to show some calm and stability," a professional man with a family and a Solidarity member's badge in his lapel remarks, "or we can hardly expect anyone to help us with food or anything else."

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