Why is the Netherlands only now using European food aid?

For years Tom Hillemans has been trying to persuade politicians to demand European food aid. Although around 120,000 Dutch people get food from a food bank once a week, Vice President of the Food Bank Holland Hillemans estimates that the group that qualifies for a food package is around four to five hundred thousand Dutch people. So much more than they actually see go by.

Why did the cabinet leave a jar, intended for vulnerable people, untouched for so long?

The people who visit Hillemans and his colleagues have too little money to pay for their groceries (entirely) themselves. To qualify for support from the food bank, you must have less than €300 left over from the food bank per month for groceries, clothing and other expenses, after deducting your fixed costs. For a couple with two children, it is more: a maximum of 630 euros. A standard lunch box contains about 25 products, enough to eat for 2 to 3 days.

Despite the large number of Dutch people who can and are allowed to use food aid, the Dutch government has left European money unused for years. Why did the cabinet leave a jar, intended for vulnerable people, untouched for so long?

The European Social Fund

In recent years, the number of people using food aid has increased sharply due to the corona pandemic and the energy crisis. Yet many people still stay away. Hillemans, who has volunteered in food banks for almost seventeen years: “A lot of people are still under the radar. They do not know about the existence of the food banks, do not have a sufficient command of the Dutch language or are ashamed to use food aid.”

A shame, says Hillemans, because the food banks could really use the help. They do not belong to the government, but must provide for themselves. Hillemans: “We are an independent, private association that depends on donations and funds.” Most of these funds come from private individuals and organisations, and grants also come from municipalities and provinces. But never before have the food banks received money from Europe.

Although there is a pot for it: the European Social Fund (ESF). This is to support people in a vulnerable working position and fight poverty. This year, the Netherlands appealed for the first time to this fund for food aid and the fight against child poverty. The Netherlands was awarded 413 million euros, of which just under 16 million goes to e.g. food, school supplies and toiletries.

Carola Schouten, minister for poverty policy, participation and pensions (ChristenUnie), does not have room in her agenda to explain to OneWorld why the Netherlands has not used European money for food aid for years, her spokesman said. On behalf of the minister, he makes the following statement: “The Netherlands chose and chooses to spend the majority of the budget made available from the European Social Fund on strengthening the labor market position of people who need it to be able to start or more to go to work. This is a more structural solution to poverty.”

Milky lakes and butter mountains

The European Food Aid Program (PEAD) was established as early as 1987, which then fell under European agricultural policy. The idea was that food surpluses – the ‘lakes of milk’ and ‘mountains of butter’ that had developed in the 1970s and 1980s – would benefit poor Europeans.

Hillemans already encouraged the Rutte-I cabinet to make use of this pot because tons of food was destroyed while there were also Dutch people starving. In twenty other European countries, food banks made use of the programme. However, Henk Bleker, then State Secretary for Economy, Agriculture and Innovation, believed that social policy was not an issue for Europe, like his predecessors.

In 2014, the Netherlands did not choose food aid, but invested around 4.5 million euros in a library project

In 2014, the pool was transferred to social affairs, under the name The Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD): ‘The Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived’. In the period up to 2020, a total of €3.8 billion was available for material aid, such as food, clothing and personal care, and non-material aid, projects to help the most disadvantaged to participate in society.

The Netherlands did not choose food aid, but raised around 4.5 million euros from the fund for a project of libraries in the four big cities to combat loneliness among the elderly. “Per program period, one fixed amount from these funds is intended for the member country the Netherlands. So it was a matter of making choices and then another goal was chosen, namely the social inclusion of the elderly,” replies the social and employment rapporteur.

And now the pool falls under another fund: the European Social Fund, which mainly focuses on projects that help people find work. In the period 2014-2020, the Netherlands received around 770 million euros from this fund to provide further training for working people and help people on benefits to find a job. For the current period, which runs up to and including 2027, the Netherlands is therefore also requesting material aid for the first time, such as food, school supplies for children, menstrual products and other toiletries.

No structural solution

Hillemans agrees with the spokesperson for the ministry that food aid is a form of emergency aid and does not solve poverty. But, he says, the support is much needed. “The fact that food banks exist should be a signal to politicians that things are not going well.” It can also be both, he believes. “Politicians should be concerned with structural solutions to poverty and with relief.” Hillemans points out that the government has ‘a constitutional duty’ to give its citizens a roof over their heads and prevent them from starving.

The existence of food banks should be a signal to the politicians that things are not going well

The Corona pandemic still won over the Netherlands, explains the spokesman. The number of Dutch people who had to go to the food bank increased so quickly that the cabinet decided to donate 4 million to the food banks from its own resources. Now that demand for food aid is rising again due to inflation and the energy crisis, The Hague decided to claim the pool.

Waiting lists or smaller packages

Moreover, it is not yet certain that the European money will go to the food banks. Because it is a grant, it is open enrollment. Other organizations involved in food aid, such as the Red Cross, can also sign up.

At the Poverty Fund, a non-profit organization that fights poverty through local projects, they would be happy for the extra European money. Although the foundation does not want to comment on the time when the food aid remained unused. Spokesman Wendy Heerkens-Brands: “We are pleased that the Dutch government applied for the ESF contribution. Yes, in our opinion it would have been wise to do so earlier, but it remains a political consideration. And we do not want to interfere us in political matters.”

According to Hillemans, the food banks can make good use of the support. The fact that the food banks need extra money is not only due to the increased need for food aid. “The food banks have two tasks: to fight poverty and to fight food waste. Because there are still better solutions to prevent food waste, our range is getting smaller and smaller.” For example, food banks are often short of rice, pasta and eggs.

In the first quarter of 2023, the food banks will get a clear answer on where the money from Europe goes. Hillemans hopes for support: “If we don’t get extra money, there is a risk that we will have to work with waiting lists. Or that the packages will be smaller.”

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