Don’t be afraid, says volunteer Martin Callens (64) to his boss, as he points from the back of his forklift to the frozen warehouse of the Food Bank West Flanders, located in an industrial area on the outskirts of Kortrijk. Chairman of the board Ignace Bosteels first frowns and then pushes the door open with a firm hiss. Empty shelves. Only a few pellets of frozen vegetables lie in the back ready to be handed out. It is a fraction of what was available before the various crises. “Last week I was in the East Flanders Food Bank,” says Callens. “The freezer there was even completely empty. We live in great uncertainty. And we don’t know what’s coming our way.”
The supply of food banks in Belgium, nine in all, is under pressure, now that the energy crisis means that the major food producers have virtually no profit. “Companies act differently than before,” explains Bosteels. “At the beginning of the corona crisis, when the catering industry was closed for weeks on end, the companies had large stocks. Then, for example, we got buckets with ten kilos of mayonnaise, which we could share with a little improvisation. However, due to the war in Ukraine and the ever-increasing prices, companies are now waiting for orders before starting production. As a result, we are seeing a 30 percent drop in the number of food donations.”
This can also be seen further on in the warehouse: you can now see through some racks that were previously filled to the ceiling. For now, most food banks are still compensated by funds from the Flemish government, says Bosteels, so the distributions to the poorest remain at the same level.
European aid program
There is also a European food aid programme, the Fédération Européenne des Activités du Déchet (FEAD), which enabled volunteers from food banks in Belgium to give almost 200,000 people free food last year. With that jar, Europe pays producers of rice, canned vegetables and other basic products to donate to food banks. Without that help, the dispensations would be much more affected. And those sounds are increasing, according to Bosteels. “In the next two years, extra money has come in, from 12 to 18 million. But from 2024, the amount we get from FEAD will go to 6 million. If the situation remains as it is now, we have a problem.”
In the Kortrijk area, there is therefore Foodact, a collaboration between thirteen municipalities, where young people participate in a reintegration process and drive past supermarkets daily to collect, sort and distribute food with an expiry date that is closest to the before date. There are 82 of these in West Flanders alone.
But as the supply of free food dries up, demand for it has only increased in recent months due to the same crises. Since the war in Ukraine, the Belgian Federation of Food Banks has seen a 15 percent increase in the number of people receiving food aid. That figure is unprecedented, says a spokesman, and is probably higher now. “And it’s really not just Ukrainian refugees,” says Ignace Bosteels. “They came a lot at the beginning, but usually stay away after two or three times. Then they must have found work.”
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Request for help due to more expensive energy
The increase is primarily due to exploding energy prices. For people with a full-time job who are now or will soon be faced with a bill for electricity and gas of several hundred euros a month, standing in line at the food bank.
For that reason, they were at the food distribution De Vaart Sint-Vincentius in Kortrijk, where the queue outside in the Vaartstraat has become about 25 to 30 percent longer compared to a year ago, forced to stop not only on Wednesday morning, but also open on Tuesday evening. People who work during the day have had until 06.30 to come and get food. And it is eagerly used; three thousand kilos of food a week goes from racks to shopping bags. De Vaart does not know exactly where the above-average rise in Kortrijk is coming from.
In Belgium, you can’t just go to the food banks. You must have a referral from a municipal OCMW, the Public Center for Social Welfare. Criteria apply for this: you must be able to demonstrate that you are undergoing debt restructuring, that you are entitled to a living wage (a benefit), or that you are living in poverty for another reason. People eligible for food assistance must visit once every two weeks for six months. After this, PCSW will reassess whether the financial situation is still serious enough.
When Wim Debonne (69) started at De Vaart ten years ago, they helped 150 families. That number has now doubled to more than 300. “Today I also receive calls on my mobile from people outside OCMW asking if they can come,” he says early Tuesday morning in an office on Vaartstraat in Kortrijk, while volunteers busy preparing sandwich bags of tomatoes and green beans around him. to fill. “Recently there was a lady with her own house who could no longer buy food. I had to turn her down. If you are a home owner, you are not entitled to food assistance. You must first try to sell your house. It’s disturbing.”
At five o’clock on Tuesday afternoon, the first people trickle into De Vaart Sint-Vincentius. There is a Ukrainian family with two young women. An interpreter is waiting for them at the entrance. They slide in a narrow corridor past several shelves, where they get what they are entitled to, behind a counter on wheels from a volunteer. A family of four – two children, two adults – gets a maximum of four cartons of milk, vegetables and frozen meat for four people and not a small, but a large loaf of bread. Coffee is scarce. Each family gets only one suit. They have to do that for two weeks.
Iranian Leila (26) holds her son Abbas (1) with one arm. With her arm still free, she drags a shopping bag past the counters. Her husband works in a steel factory further up in Mouscron, near the French border, and they are still dependent on food aid. This is due to the energy bill, which recently went from 200 to 500 euros per month. But there is hope for Leila and her family: She recently finished her nursing degree and found a job. This probably means that they will soon no longer need food aid.
Full time job but still need help
But it doesn’t work for everyone in line. More and more people with full-time jobs are dependent on food aid. Roofer Pedro Wendels (44), for example, has been in trouble since his divorce because his wife had incurred debts without his knowledge. He didn’t know how to get through the month without food aid.
This also applies to Erik Decock (38). He has worked as a permanent technician at the Croky factory in Mouscron for seventeen years. He earns a basic salary, just over 1,800 euros gross per month, and has always done well. Until three months ago. “The bills kept piling up,” he says outside on Vaartstraat. “My rent has increased, just as the cost of gas has increased from 75 to 120 euros per month. With the rising prices of food on top of that, I have nothing left. While I work 40 hours a week.” Decock worries about the coming winter months. And for a possible lockdown due to a new corona wave. “Soon they’ll keep us in during the most expensive months. Do I have to turn on lights and heat all day long? It won’t work.”
De Vaart closes at seven thirty. The vegetable shelves are empty. Never before had 53 families come to collect food aid on a Tuesday evening.