Behind the scenes at the food bank: “When I see who comes here, I know: this can happen to anyone”

Inflation, rising prices, soaring energy bills: More and more people can no longer make ends meet and turn to the food bank. Libelle accompanied the volunteers. “Whoever needs food gets food.”

Vera Spanish

It’s rush hour this Thursday evening in Westerwijk, a building on a busy street in Amsterdam-West. Young women and a single man carry boxes. Loud music is playing, somewhere someone is standing in despair with a bag of bean sprouts in their hands. Is this cabbage or stir-fried vegetables? What box should this be in? Tonight, like every Thursday night, this is the food bank’s distribution point. “My colleagues know: On Thursdays I’m gone at a quarter to five,” says Annelot Saenger (30). In everyday life, she is a municipal official, but every Thursday she is at the food bank from five o’clock. Then she has boxes of food with other volunteers, which are delivered from the distribution office. It contains only non-perishable products, the volunteers on site fill the boxes with fresh food that has arrived. Today, these include fried vegetables, so bean sprouts and lots of bananas. Bananas, the volunteers are happy about that. Give a kid a banana and it can go on for a while.


temporary support

Another half hour and then the first customers arrive. There are thirty here, from all walks of life. Refugees, people in debt, people who have had huge bad luck with their own company. Some clients are single, others have small or large families – two families have four or more children. An extra large box awaits them. What’s in it varies from week to week. In any case, it is good for two to three days of food. “We want people to remain self-reliant,” says Oscarine Vonk (54), self-employed and volunteer spokesperson for the Amsterdam Food Bank. “That they also act themselves and are not completely dependent on what they get here.” Because the food aid is temporary – at least that is the idea. People come here when they are in financial trouble. When the disposable income after deducting the fixed costs is below three hundred euros per month. Another one hundred and ten euros per person is added, so families with a slightly lower income are already eligible. The situation is reassessed every six months. Most customers stay for a year and a half, all are supposed to leave within three years. But now, fall 2022, that three-year limit has been released for some time. There are simply too many people who still need help after three years. “When people come here for the first time, you can see their heads hanging,” says volunteer coordinator Karen Voors (67). “They hate being here. But after three or four times, their faces crack up. Then things get a little better for them: The food bank naturally brings stability. They don’t have to worry about whether they can put enough food on the table tonight.” People leave after a while, and sometimes they come back. Voors: “You can leave because you got a job, but you can also lose that job. Then you fall below the norm again to get a package. It’s very sad, but then I say: here at the food bank we are always happy.”

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Chronic deficiency

Despite all the cheerfulness: the situation in the Netherlands is worrying. Food Banks Holland is experiencing a sharp increase in the number of registrations per week. Among them are a striking number of people who work and yet can no longer make ends meet, and many elderly people who can no longer manage on their state pension. Inflation, rising food prices and skyrocketing energy bills leave deep scars in society. The number of people who can no longer escape poverty and who therefore need food aid for more than three years is also increasing rapidly. Leo Wijnbelt, chairman of Voedselbanken Nederland, estimates that 1.2 million people in the Netherlands live in poverty. Most of them can still buy food. “We are currently feeding 100,000 people with the food bank,” he says. “But we know that four hundred thousand people in the Netherlands are hungry. We would prefer to help them all, but then you have to have enough food.”
And that is the problem: the Food Bank suffers from a chronic shortage. The number of customers is growing, but less food is coming in. The latter is actually good news, at least for the planet: much less food is wasted. Manufacturers have made their processes more efficient. It should: the UN has agreed to halve food waste by 2030. Very good, of course, but much of the ‘wasted’ food used to go to the food bank.
Supermarkets are also smarter with their products. If something is about to expire, a discount sticker will appear. Good for the consumer, less good for those who would otherwise receive that food through a lunch box. And then there are all sorts of commercial initiatives. Through the Too Good To Go app, people can buy food that is close to its best-before date at a significant discount. Online platform Foodello does basically the same thing and delivers home. You can also make good money in the fight against waste. For example, many remaining batches of non-perishable products are sold to chain pharmacies and discount stores. Wijnbelt thinks this is a good development, because preventing waste is one of the pillars of the food bank. “But it is bitter that this sustainability is at the expense of people who depend on food aid.”

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Targeted actions

Food Banks Holland will continue to talk to producers and supermarkets. For example, they participate in flyer campaigns where customers are asked to buy something specific for the food bank, which is currently in short supply. Volunteers are also needed for this. Annelot Saenger hands out flyers once a month: “On Saturdays I’m in the supermarket from nine to five. Most respond positively. ‘Oh cool, what do you need?’, they ask. Or they say that they have visited the food bank themselves and understand well how important it is. And a few say: Fuck off. She smiles. “Well, I’m standing there with a flyer, I don’t always feel like it myself, but most people participate.” In the past, campaigns in supermarkets were less targeted, says Oscarine Vonk. “The invitation was: Buy something extra for the food bank, and then people came with cookies and cakes. But there is generally no shortage of that. Last year people had bought 35 Christmas wreaths to donate. Oh, I thought then, I asked first what is needed… People already get a lot of sweets during the festive months. We primarily need fruit, vegetables, bread and meat.” And olive oil, adds another volunteer. “Someone was new recently and immediately asked: do you have oil? But unfortunately.” In the summer there is a lot of fruit, in the autumn a lot of cabbage. What’s left is often: pots of red cabbage and beetroot. Most customers can’t do much about that. “You don’t want to tell people: it’s food, so you must bring it,” says Annelot Saenger. “There is also such a thing as dignity. Anyone who does not like to eat something should not eat it.”

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Share fairly

Since she became a volunteer, it is natural to be able to shop away, says Saenger. “I realize how privileged I am.” Volunteer colleague Leonie Coppes (30), political assistant in The Hague in everyday life, agrees with her. “I just think how lucky I am. When I see who all comes here, I know: it can happen to me too.”
For example, Anita (50) had a normal job until two years ago. She was behind the bar in a brown pub in the Amsterdam Jordaan. When the first lockdown started, in March 2020, the pub closed and was no longer needed. Not long after, it turned out that she had the lung disease COPD. She has now been on sick leave for two years. She says that she gets less than a thousand euros a month – and pays 626 euros in rent. Of course, that is not possible. She ran into rent arrears and ended up in debt restructuring. Now she lives on fifty euros a week, which she also has to feed two big boys who still live at home. She looks into her bags. “Today I have to stir and fry,” she says. She is happy with the food bank, although more fresh food would be nice. “There are never any toppings and the meat is minimal.” Meat is still a problem: there is often too little, and almost never halal, so slaughtered according to Islamic rules. There is a lot of meat in North Brabant. That’s where the big pig farmers and all kinds of meat processors are located, so the packages in that province often contain meat. In the north, where there is almost no livestock farming, this is lacking. Other deficiencies are also determined locally. Fruit and vegetables are mainly grown in North and South Holland, Limburg and Gelderland. The supply is often plentiful where there is a shortage in the rest of the Netherlands. Now the food bank has the Fruit and Green Brigade, where products that remain are distributed nationwide, but yes – if fruit is overripe, there is no time left to take it to the other side of the country. For example, the search for a good distribution among all 172 food banks in the country continues.

Always help

Khadija (34) carries two large shopping bags up the stairs. She is happy with her bags, she says, even though she never gets meat: “What’s here is not halal.” She has been here for a year now. Where Anita talks endlessly about her own financial situation, Khadija keeps a low profile. “People come here because they have little money,” she says. She doesn’t want to come here. The will to fight: “Not at all! I have the right to that.” Khadija has a husband and four children. The youngest is two years old, the oldest twelve. People don’t talk about the food bank at home. On Thursday evenings she just comes home with the shopping, ready. “The children only ask about something when there’s something crazy. It’s just messages.” And she’s gone. Meanwhile, a thin woman reports to Leonie Coppes. Her alert gaze and stooped gait betray a life on the streets. She was referred by the Salvation Army, she says. The rest is incomprehensible. The police don’t care. Friendly: “Just report to Karen, at that table,” she points. “I’m sure she can help you further.” The woman has to wait a bit, but in good time before the last regular customers have arrived, she has also been able to fill a bag. “If you go to the food bank and you need food, you get food,” says Leo Wijnbelt. “The threshold is already high enough. The intake only takes place after about a month, and we will see if you are entitled to building assistance, what the reason is, and if we can mediate.” In the end, the food bank prefers to lose its customers as quickly as possible. “Recently we had a party,” says Wijnbelt. “Then one of our customers said goodbye. After fourteen years.”

Nico Dijkshoorn works with volunteer Marlies.  Picture

Nico Dijkshoorn works with volunteer Marlies.

Libelle cooks with the food bank

Until Christmas, we pay extra attention to the food bank in Libelle every week. It’s now 172 food banks in the Netherlands, who also like to give their customers a healthy meal during the holidays. This winter is expected to be more than 40,000 families depending on the packages from the food bank. Libelle would like to encourage those people and encourage anyone who can contribute time, money or food to do so this winter. Our columnists Sylvia Witteman, Nico Dijkshoorn, Wieke Biesheuvel, Peter Heerschop and Roos Schlikker cooked with a food bank package and spoke on camera with volunteers and clients of the food bank.
You can read the result every week in Libelle and see it at libelle.nl/devoeedingbank.

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