Regina Mac-Nack has run a food bank for thirty years

After Surinamese Regina Mac-Nack had the same dream three times, she founded the food bank ‘Hope for Tomorrow’. Every week, she supplies almost two thousand Amsterdam families with a food package. “If we can help it, it’s worth it.”

The first thing you smell when you walk into Regina’s office? The smoky smell of Hema sausages. They are packed two by two in boxes, next to piles of banana boxes that reach the ceiling. A framed faded page from Het Parool hangs on the wall. ‘Amsterdam of the Year 2005: It’s Regina Mac-Nack!’, reads the headline. And right below that, Regina sits in the flesh on a red and black desk chair. ‘Mother of Southeast’, as the people of Amsterdam like to call her. What does she think of that title? She laughs heartily at that. With a beckoning gesture: “Angel of the Southeast, pearl, mother – I have so many names. I think what I’m doing is completely normal.”

‘Give a little, take a little’

The 61-year-old Surinamese founded the food bank Hoop voor Morgen in Amsterdam’s Bijlmermeer almost thirty years ago. Every week, she and her volunteers give around 1,800 families a food package. Her mission, she says, began in the mid-1990s when she became disabled due to a medical error. “A cyst was mistaken for an ectopic pregnancy,” she explains. “During the operation, a nerve was hit – I lost the baby and ended up in a wheelchair.” She makes a contorted face: “It left me with stabbing back pain 24 hours a day. First I was given painkillers. Morphine, diazepam, prednisone: nothing helped. I then followed intensive pain management. Also without result. ‘Learn to live with it,’ was the message from the doctors at the end.

“But,” she continues, raising her eyebrows, “I’m also a believer. And as a believer, at one point I cried out to God: ‘Where are you? I don’t want to go to a fortune teller or a laying on of hands, I want to ask you personally for healing. If you really exist, get me out of this situation. Then I will do something for you in return’. Why did I add that promise? If you’re desperate, you negotiate, huh? And for what, listen what – I thought, but that’s not how God works. He doesn’t expect anything from you.” A few months later, Regina goes to a healing service. “Even before the shift started, I felt three hot stabs in my back and the pain went away. I could walk again without someone supporting me. And more importantly, I was able to take care of my two children again. To this day I am pain free.”

Dozens of families

Despite Regina’s full recovery, finding a job is not so easy. “During that time, I had the same dream three times,” she says. “I saw myself handing out food on the street. People wore shoes with holes, their clothes were dirty and tattered. At first I kept the dream to myself, but the third time I shared it with my husband. “Didn’t you promise anything to God?” he then asked me. He was right. Maybe I should go back to Suriname, I thought. Because there was no poverty in Holland, right? Until I went for a walk on the Zeedijk in Amsterdam. There I suddenly saw them: addicts who eat from the trash, undocumented migrants without homes, income and food. I drove there with a friend in a fully loaded car and we distributed soup and sandwiches, drinks, clothes and shoes.”

You must have faith when you ask God for something

For years, Regina has been to be found at Zeedijk every Thursday evening, until a mother with her three children appears at the door one winter Sunday morning. Regina: “They looked unkempt. “Do you have any leftovers from the homeless?” she asked. She was desperate. Her husband had left her, the power had been cut off, and she had no food for her children. I heated up chocolate milk and made toasted sandwiches—the four of them ate two whole loaves. I emptied my pantry and gave them two bags of food, enough for a week. At the door she turned for a moment: could she come again next week? Yes, I said. The week after not only did she show up at the door, but she had another mom with her. And before I knew it, ten families, twenty families, and eventually a line of dozens of families a week were standing at my door. Help was coming from all sides . Neighbors packed potatoes, bread and fruit in my living room. In the winter I turned off the heat to keep the vegetables fresh. And so the forerunner of the food bank in Amsterdam arose from my own home.”

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‘More fun than boring office work’

Two young women enter the office with a form for Regina to sign. They are doing an internship with the care brigade, an initiative where people who have been unemployed for a long time get a job and vocational training in the care field. As Regina initials their presence that morning, Care Sergeant Safira begins to say, “Other days we do activities with elderly people who still live at home, like grocery shopping, looking at pictures together, or dancing.” Safira has just come back from maternity leave and recently left her boyfriend’s place. “Now I have to think about my future,” she says with a proud twinkle in her deep brown eyes. “I have my exam in June, and after that I want to apply for a job in the warehouse in a distribution center. It seems a lot more fun than boring office work!” She receives a small supplement from the municipality for her internship. “I’ve never been rich, so I can live on a little,” Safira continues, putting on disposable gloves to bag the Hema sausages. “I don’t care that I can only shop in thrift stores. As long as I can clothe my children and give them food and drink.”

Pallets full of food

In the hallway, you can hear the clatter of wheels on a tiled floor. Volunteer Karel pushes a cart with bags of freshly cut stew in front of him to the small warehouse next to the office. There he has exhibited dozens of boxes in which he distributes all kinds of products – from gingerbread to the freshly packed Hema sausages. Today there is more than enough food to hand out, but it is sometimes different, says Regina. “We always open for customers at two o’clock. But once at 11:30 we still had nothing to give. “Let’s pray and ask God for help,” I told the volunteers. At exactly five past twelve, a lorry was at the door. They drove pallets full of food in here, we simply didn’t know where to put it.” Smiling: “You have to have faith when you ask God about something. If you say you believe, don’t half believe—you believe wholly or not at all.”

The king’s bond

Volunteer Elza has now also arrived. “Elza comes all the way from Wilnis,” Regina suggests. “We are in the same church: God’s Embassy Amsterdam. Have you told me yet, Elza?” The Surinamese blinks mischievously, but before Elza can say anything, she rattles on: “Elza has received a ribbon from the king. She has been a volunteer for years, including in a women’s prison. But I’m speaking for her, right? Say it yourself.” Elza smiles modestly: “We all need each other, don’t we? Together with my husband, I have chosen to quit my job so that there is room for voluntary work. Out of gratitude to God, because we feel so blessed. And also from service to the community. Why would I want to work in this food bank? Because it’s not only about good works, but also about faith. I think that’s important.”

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Elza takes a notepad with numbers, which you usually get in a wardrobe. “Do you want to go outside with me?” She waves. The warehouse door opens with loud creaks and creaks. And sure enough: even though the packages won’t be delivered until an hour later, there are already a handful of people outside. The food bank is at the bottom of an apartment building and the wind blows treacherously cold past it. “Who was here first?” Elsa asks. The customers automatically form a row. “We’re trying to keep order in the distribution,” Elza explains, tearing off number by number and handing it to those waiting. “Some have been here from half past twelve, while we don’t open until two o’clock. So it is not fair if someone who arrives five minutes early is the first to shop.” A customer stops in front of her: “Can I have an extra receipt? The neighbor is gone for a while, but here is his bag.” Elza gently shakes her head: “No, he has to come himself. But I’ll keep a number aside for him so he can pick it up from me.”

No subsidy

Unlike regular food banks, Hoop voor Morgen does not receive subsidies. Each customer contributes between one and three euros per package. “Combined with private donations, we pay for rent and electricity,” says Regina, entering a room with large refrigerators. She opens a giant refrigerator door and collects a few cups of yogurt for the packages that go to elderly people. Volunteer Teun – a tan Amsterdammer in his 70s who has lived in Bijlmer for decades – delivers them to their homes because they can no longer get to the food bank. “Why don’t we get subsidies?” she continues, putting a few more pears in a bag. “I do it my way – the best way. First, we help people. Then we’ll see what happens.”

In the winter I turned off the heat to keep the vegetables fresh

You have to explain that.
“Our love for people is our starting point. If you come to me in need, I will not say go home, and first come with statements of three months’ salary, electricity, rent and health insurance. Only after you have done that, you might get a package from me. It often takes a few weeks before you receive copies of the home construction. Meanwhile, things are getting out of hand at home, the kids are going to school without food, and mom can’t find the paychecks. That’s not how it works, is it? We help first. Then we arrange to visit you at home. This is not possible in an ordinary food bank. There you must first prove to the point that you need it. Does anyone earn five euros too much for the food bank? Then he is still welcome here.”

Have you ever been tricked? Cheap things maybe also attract other people?
Regina jumps: “Of course there is always someone. But it shouldn’t make me lump the rest together. None! If we can help one child, if one child regains their self-esteem by bringing something to school, it’s worth it. Besides, if you’re kidding me, I’ll find out. At the end of the day, you have to come up with papers.”

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You’ve been doing this for thirty years: have you seen changes around poverty in recent decades?
“It has become more intense since the corona crisis. Before the corona broke out, around eight hundred families came here, now there are almost two thousand. And yet there is always something. I also saw a wave of registrations when the euro was introduced. And what about the financial crisis of 2008?” Sighing: “I could write a book about it, and I will. It will be released in July.”

Balance

It’s two o’clock: the food bank opens. Since corona, the packages have been distributed outside, which is why volunteers place the boxes on tables that stand against the outer wall of the apartment. Customers of all kinds find out what they can use that week and finally receive bread and omelettes. “Undocumented refugees to highly educated come here for help,” Regina says later as she also drags out a box. “And with every interview I get that question again: what do you hope for? And then I always give the same answer: that this is no longer necessary. That there will be more balance between people’s income.” Volunteer Elza listens in and replies: “And you want a bigger building, that should also be noted. This location is far too small to be practical.” Regina nods, “We definitely need a bigger room. But my dearest wish? For this to stop. I can always do child labor.”

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