‘We can stack the boxes, they are so empty’

More and more customers are registering at food banks, like this one in Emmen, while the supply is shrinking.Statue Harry Cock / de Volkskrant

‘It’s empty for us to cook here,’ says Ton Sleeking, chairman of the Food Bank Sydøstdrenthe, as he gestures towards the shelf that once overflowed with packages of pasta. Due to inflation and rising energy and gas prices, the number of people who are entitled to a food package is growing, so volunteers in the depot in Emmen have to distribute the scarce goods among more and more customers.

It is not only in Emmen that the shelves are almost empty. In the past, food banks in the regions of Haaglanden, Zeeland, Utrecht and Brabant, among others, have sounded the alarm, but how many of the 171 food banks in the Netherlands are suffering from shortages has not been registered. All these food banks together help almost 100 thousand Dutch people. ‘The number of customers is increasing nationally, while the food supply is decreasing’, says Tom Hillemans, deputy chairman of Food Bank Holland. “Our packages often consist of products approaching their best-before date from supermarkets and companies such as Unilever and Hak. But because in recent years they have optimized their procurement processes to prevent waste, there is less and less food left for us.’

That is why the provincial council intervenes in Drenthe. On Wednesday, the parties unanimously approved a proposal from PvdA to donate 100,000 euros to the food banks in Denmark. With that money, chairman Sleeking hopes to be able to buy products that are needed at that time more quickly, so that the food bank is less dependent on lopsided donations.

Shopping bags from the budget supermarket

Later in the day, the products from the depot in Emmen were spread across distribution points in the city. In a Protestant church in the post-war neighborhood of Emmerhout, retired volunteers quickly distribute the food over more than fifty boxes. “We can stack the boxes today,” says volunteer Bep. “They are so empty.”

There are dozens of people waiting outside, all with a shopping bag from a budget supermarket to be filled inside. The mood is back. Nobody likes being there, but one woman, who doesn’t want her name in the paper so as not to embarrass her three teenage daughters, says she’s grateful the food bank exists. The number of families in line has almost doubled in six months.

“If this continues, local food banks will soon have to make a choice,” says Hillemans, deputy chairman of Food Banks Netherlands. ‘Or a customer stop, or less food in the packages.’ In Emmerhout, the time has come: visitors are already getting less than the planned five to six nutritious meals every two weeks. A 63-year-old man, his gray hair tied in a ponytail, was 80 euros short of paying his bills this month because of high energy costs. “After four days, almost everything in the package was gone, so I ate leftover macaroni for ten days. I’ve tried everything, including macaroni soup.’

From roundabout crisis to debt crisis

‘We are now in a temporary crisis’, says Arjan Vliegenthart, director of Nibud (National Institute for Budget Information). ‘People wonder: How will I get through the month? I’m afraid it will soon turn into a debt crisis.’ That The income standards for eligibility for a food parcel have already been stretched recently, but according to Vliegenthart, this is not enough. “It’s almost impossible to keep up with current inflation.”

The thought of rising prices makes people waiting in line at the food bank desperate. A 42-year-old woman has to keep her head above water for 16 euros a week after she ended up being sick last year. She is desperate, she says. Her 18-year-old daughter, who lives at home, has to give up the money from her side job, the jeans she wears were given to her by her 22-year-old student son. Her green eyes are tired behind her glasses. “If you don’t have anything, you can’t give up anymore.”

‘I take into account that inflation will increase even more in the coming months,’ says Hillemans. “We can do nothing but do our very best to get more donations, from businesses or individuals who may miss out.”

Back at the food depot, the leftovers are packed for a young woman, who is exceptionally allowed to pick up an emergency kit without prior registration, after her daughter’s school called the food bank because something needed to be done for the family. The raspberry jam, eggs, pancake mix and other food items in the emergency food package are so welcome that the woman is full as soon as she sees the shopping bag. ‘Do you like cheese?’, asks warehouse manager Margareth consolingly. “Then we’ll add that too.”

Fred de Jong: 'The time when I was awake because of this situation is over.  All I can do is laugh about it.'  Statue Harry Cock / de Volkskrant

Fred de Jong: ‘The time when I was awake because of this situation is over. All I can do is laugh about it.’Statue Harry Cock / de Volkskrant

Fred de Jong (61), widower without children, former lorry driver, now on welfare due to long-term illness.

‘I worked all my life until I started working for a temp agency, broke my hip overseas and lost a lower leg and a couple of toes to cardiovascular disease. I have been paying premiums for over thirty years, but I cannot be denied. I live on welfare of a thousand euros. I pay a monthly health insurance premium of 170 euros and the personal contribution every year. Every other week I get a food package from the food bank. It’s not nearly enough, I scrape up the rest.

‘I have just heard that from next year I will lose three hundred euros a month on gas and electricity. I have no idea how to pay for it. I always check at the end of the month which bills I have to pay. One time I don’t pay for the TV, the next month I leave the rent. I try to vary that a bit. The company can only kick you out after three months of non-payment, did you know that? But you must pay attention to your health insurance, they will immediately impose a fine on you.

‘The time when I was awake from this situation is over. All I can do is laugh about it. It’s just ridiculous, but you can’t help it.’

Hendrik Levinga;  “Last week I needed a new toothbrush and toothpaste.  It had become 20 cents more expensive again.'  Statue Harry Cock / de Volkskrant

Hendrik Levinga; “Last week I needed a new toothbrush and toothpaste. It had become 20 cents more expensive again.’Statue Harry Cock / de Volkskrant

Hendrik Levinga (39), single with four children, one of whom lives with him. He is in debt restructuring after his company’s bankruptcy and is training to be a truck driver.

‘For years I had my own company in land, road and road construction, I managed 24 employees. At first it went well, but then the corona came. The assignments dried up, but I had to continue paying my employees. Then it becomes really difficult. I went bankrupt and became stressed. My farm had to go and I moved to a very small house. During that period I had to knock on my parents’ door for money. That is not nice. When my four children came over at the weekend, I skipped a meal that week so I could buy chips for them.’

‘I have received a package from the food bank once every fortnight for a year now. The first time I stood in line I felt uncomfortable. I could have always saved myself, but now I was suddenly dependent. Once the rent is written off, I have 275 euros left to get through the rest of the month. Then flip each euro three times. I used to have 10 or 20 euros left over to shop extra in the Jumbo discount, but that is no longer possible now that everything is getting more expensive. Last week I needed a new toothbrush and toothpaste. It was another 20 cents more expensive than last time. And so it is with everything. Hopefully it will get better soon. I am trying to complete a truck driver training course; I have to pass two more exams. When the three years I’m still in debt settlement are over, the sky will finally clear.’

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