In this food bank, no one needs to know why you come here

“Hey sweetie, are you coming to get your bag later, or is it going to be okay? Can you eat what we put in it?” Millicent Schepman has just arrived at Ikky daycare center in Almere Buiten. Four volunteers have already half-filled about fifty boxes. In one case an oversized zucchini, margarine and lunch meat, in another box a packed lunch, Heks’n cheese and black pudding. It will they complement what is being collected at the moment. There are boxes for ‘large family’, ‘family 4 people’ and small boxes for one or two people. A large part is halal. Schepman checks which names are on the list today and has chosen one. “We are a little worried, will you be back soon?”

Twice a week, the Almere Buitengewoon Foundation distributes bags of fresh surplus food to around a hundred families struggling to make ends meet, at this childcare center and from a neighborhood room in Almere Haven in the Ymere housing association. The food comes from supermarkets and shops, but also from gardeners and farmers from Flevoland, who have nowhere to take their apples that are too small or courgettes that are too big. From Oosterwold, a neighborhood where the residents grow a lot of their own food, someone is coming this morning with the kitchen garden harvest. “You have to give something back to the city,” says de Oosterwolder.

Five years ago, Millicent Schepman (52) started with the first consignment of potatoes, beetroot and purslane, which she had collected from local farmers. Based on the simple thought: on the one hand there is too much, on the other hand too little. Flevoland is bursting with fresh vegetables. At the same time, Almere has 12,000 households around the social minimum, often with a lack of healthy, fresh food.

It started with meals. But where people eat together, Schepman said, recipes are quickly exchanged. And even cooking becomes self-sufficient. That’s why the ‘customers’ now get a food bag so they can decide for themselves whether they make roti or the potato and bean stew.

Also read: Food banks struggle with dwindling supplies..

As project manager, Schepman was paid a subsidy from the municipality for the first year. But since the summer of 2018, Buitengewoon has been a foundation with zero paid staff, 35 volunteers and dozens of donors and sponsors. She could have entered other food banks in Almere. But Schepman wants it differently. No long distribution chains where the food is (too) long on the road, no supplies, no shop. Collect and distribute as much as possible on the same day. If you want a bag, you pay 2 euros for it. Because: “Food has value.”

‘Dining table’ guests enter People’s Canteen eat three courses for six euros.
Photo by Bram Petraeus
Mildride Rack (l.) with a volunteer in the kitchen in the Volkskantinen.
Yvonne Wanrooij with a full shopping bag.
Photo by Bram Petraeus

Above all, Schepman wants no barriers to healthy eating. When neighborhood social workers see families struggling, they call Schepman. New ‘customers’ do not have to submit bank statements. “Your story stays with me. No one needs to know why you come here.”

On this Thursday morning in September, the first people are already waiting at the door before 10 o’clock. Ali Barke, a musician from Syria, who has to feed a family with four young sons for 120 euros a week. And a mother with a baby and a daughter of seven with a budget of 50 euros a week. “I can hardly make ends meet, but my shopping basket is getting emptier. They say you should first give children tasty spreads on bread. I usually give sprinkles because it’s cheaper. I never buy cold cuts or cheese.”

For that reason alone, she is happy to pay 2 euros for a lunch bag. If there is a packet of chicken breast in it, she has already taken it out. She is now six weeks behind on payments. “My name does not need to be in the newspaper. It’s not so nice to say you’re coming here.”

Yvonne Wanrooij (41) stands up even more when she spells her name. She is not ashamed, she says. “I’m glad I can come here. And I didn’t ask for that either.” Ten years ago she suffered a brain haemorrhage, reintegration failed. Wanrooij does not want to join the Food Bank. “You have to put all your stuff on the table there. And if you just have too much money, they throw you out again.”

Today, her single box contains ham, sausage, yogurt, peppers, cordon bleu, potatoes, apples, spring onions. She transfers the contents of the box to her shopping bag. “Also milk! It was just finished. And Heks’nkaas, which alone costs almost 3 euros.” She is not the only one who knows exactly how much more expensive many products have become. “A tube of mayonnaise has gone from 50 cents to 1.05 euros. I will never make an impulse purchase again, you become so aware of everything.”

Watching the prices is what everyone here does. In the square in front of the training, you discuss with each other which supermarkets give away written-off goods, when the discount goes, where and where the discount campaigns are. They sometimes cycle past three supermarkets a day for the offers.

Millicent Schepman also sees the reverse: “At the beginning of the month, when there is some money, they go to McDonald’s and buy a Staatslot. Not all, of course. But what do you know about people with full-time financial crap: You can only make short-term decisions due to stress.

The rules for Extraordinary are clear: Clients can get a bag for 52 weeks, after which they must get things back on track and make room for people on the waiting list. The help is temporary. In principle. Because when you hear how long it took to get here – 15 months, a year and a half – you also know: Poverty is rarely temporary.

And it is not something that has come to light recently, due to inflation and rising energy prices. During the first corona lockdown, Schepman also experienced an increase in the number of registrations. “Recently it was in the news that children in Rotterdam go to school hungry. It happens here too. I’m quite surprised that I don’t get more entries.”

She cares about the children, says Schepman, who sees many families with three, four or five children. Her point: If they don’t eat right, they won’t be able to concentrate, they’ll be left behind in school, and they’ll never get out of their parents’ trouble. Investing in healthy food saves society as a whole money. Schepman has told her story so often that she sometimes uses safe words: “Poverty. Hereditary. Stop.”

It also has advantages that some residents of Almere have been coming to Buitengewoon for a bag of food for so long. They get to know each other, bring a bag for each other if someone can’t come, or work as a volunteer. The line between helping and being helped, between giving and taking, is becoming thinner.

At the second number point, in Almere Haven, José comes in for a bag at the last minute. This morning she had to visit her husband in the hospital, but sometimes she also helps as a volunteer at Buitengewoon. And then she is in another group that collects personal care products. “If you see it; people who smell like vinegar because they don’t have shampoo to wash their hair with, who use old newspapers instead of toilet paper.”

Also read: It will all be too expensive for the residents of the L-apartment.

Noodles with chicken legs

“Can I have your attention for a moment? This meal is made from extra leftovers so it won’t be at the expense of your bags.” Millicent Schepman welcomes a group of about twenty people at Volkskantine, a small restaurant in Almere Centrum, opposite the fast food chain KFC. After handing over the bags, this afternoon she drove a van full of food to ‘Aunt Mildrid’, a Surinamese former nurse (75). Mildrid Rack is used to cooking for large groups. She raised eleven foster children and still regularly cooks meals for two hundred children in a nursery. Today she makes saoto soup and noodles with chicken legs and vegetables.

This Thursday, Schepman is organizing a ‘dining table’ here for the third time after the lockdowns. There are a few people who have already picked up a bag this morning. In addition to his friends, Ali Barke has brought his tanbur, a kind of guitar. But Schepman’s children are also there, two people from sponsor Rabobank and a few random passers-by. Guests pay 6 euros for two or three courses, or more if they think it’s worth it. But sometimes less if Schepman knows that 6 euros is already too much.

Constant Schoers (47) and Rob van Garderen (56) sit wide against the wall, with a view of the entire company. How did they get here? The long story: debt, disability and something with the correctional institution. The short story: with the scooter. “Not in a procession, but side by side, so that no one could pass.” Schoer laughs.

Through the administrator who has taken over his finances, he gets 60 euros a week. He has to do all that. “But now with the energy prices, I’m happy because I can’t see those bills. I know what I have and that gives me peace of mind.”

He also feels that he gets fewer groceries for the same money. And acquaintances who held the performance for a long time, he now also meets at Lidl. “Everybody’s getting hit now.” Beside him, the neighbor suggests that ‘they’ should close the borders first. Schoers understands, he says, that people want to go to a country where it is better. He would too. When Ali Barke starts playing again, he says: “You close your eyes and you’re on holiday.” Meanwhile, Van Garderen eats his noodles with gusto. “Just ask how she makes it sour.”

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