Affected by price hike, Istanbul residents embrace municipality's affordable bread project

Rising unemployment, an ongoing economic crisis and the coronvirus pandemic have made ordinary people in Turkey vulnerable. And in recent months, the soaring price of bread has been added to the list of issues plaguing the population.

An effort by the opposition-run İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality to deliver cheap bread to residents of the largest city of some 16 million has been met with resistance from the government in many districts.

The price of bread in Istanbul has seen a 20 percent increase in December, with the cost of 200 grams of bread hitting 1.5 liras from 1.25 lira.

The seemingly small increase in this staple item has prompted citizens to begin forming large lines at kiosk belonging to the municipal-run Istanbul Halk Ekmek A.Ş, which sell bread for half the price of regular bakeries.

Zeynep Başçı has been living in Fatih district for eight years. Ever since her first days in the neighbourhood, she had bought bread from a bakery nearby. She explains that her and husband only needed two breads a day, but with the arrival of their two children, their bread consumption has increased.

“If I buy four breads from the bakery a day, it costs eight lira. If I buy them from Halk Ekmek. I will have to pay four liras. So, the difference is four liras. This means at least 90-100 liras of saving in a month. I can pay a water bill or an electricity bill with that money," she explains.

“Everything is expensive. Do you know how much toothpaste or shampoo is? We would go and buy tablets for our children's distance learning,’’ she adds.

Thousands of people like Başçı have recently turned to Halk Ekmek for bread, citing the economic crisis and soaring food prices. In fact, when the pandemic first started, many people bought flour and began baking bread at home.

“The sale of bread in markets and bakeries has dropped by about 35 percent at the moment. The reason for this is that people buy flour to bake bread at home,” the head of İstanbul Chamber of Bakers, Erdoğan Çetin, told Ahval in April.

Head of the Federation of Turkish Bakers Halil İbrahim Balcı says there has not been a significant drop in bread consumption, however.

“All shops are open. People can buy their bread from both bakeries and grocery stores. There is no problem with bread,'' Balcı said.

Turkey ranks at the top in the world in terms of bread consumption, with a person consuming an average of 104 kilograms of bread a year, almost double that of many European countries.

Ramazan Çakır, who runs a Halk Ekmek shop, says that the interest in Halk Ekmek has increased a lot during this period.

There has been a 30 percent increase in the sales of bread at his shop, he explains.

The difference between five breads from a bakery and five from a Halk Ekmek shop is five liras, accounting for 150 liras a month, he explains.

Bakery owner Hüseyin Yıldız explains that prior to the AKP there used to be queues in front of bakeries in Istanbul and bread was not very easily available.

There has been a 10 percent decrease in bread sales at Yıldız's bakery, he says, but there has also been an increase in flour and dough sales during this period.

Ayşe, who runs a Halk Ekmek shop in Bahçelievler district, also said that there has been an increase of approximately 50 percent in bread sales recently.

“Previously, people with low income were more interested in our bread. But our sales have increased a lot in the last year. People with high income have also started to visit us. Especially our regular and whole what bread sales have increased,’’ she says.

Gülay, a customer of Ayşe, explains that people who are hard pressed for cash are jumping the idea of anything that is affordable.

“People come here because the prices at Halk Ekmek are good,’’ Ayşe says.

“Instead of fighting with each other, politicians should create a cheap market for people. Bills, rents, sugar, oil… Everything is expensive. Let them find a solution to these,’’ she adds.

Following a high demand for Halk Ekmek, the Istanbul municipality proposed to open 142 new Halk Ekmek shops. But Turkey’s ruling alliance, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which control the municipal council, rejected the proposal.

But the fight over bread is nowhere near its end, it seems.

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry issued a notice and announced that it was going to ban bread sales at Halk Ekmek shops.

Following backlash on social media, the ministry made a new statement, back-pedalling on its earlier decision and saying they never issued such a notice.

Just this week, the Istanbul Bread Producers Association submitted a petition to the Istanbul Governor’s Office regarding Halk Ekmek.

The petition accused the initiative of unfair competition and the Istanbul’s opposition mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu of using the programme for his own political gains.