Food poverty rife even in wealthy Germany | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 23.02.2016
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Food poverty rife even in wealthy Germany

How poor is Germany really? Staff at centers handing out food to the needy know the answer: Many people can't afford to eat properly. DW visited a center in Cologne that provides food for people to survive.

The red facade of the outbuilding at the Catholic church is a welcome spot of color on this gray day in the Cologne district of Holweide. It has been raining for several hours from a gloomy sky. Behind the red walls, 10 volunteers are sorting large green plastic crates containing fruit, vegetables, sausage, cheese and other foodstuffs. "Look here," says the 80-year-old pensioner Helga Dölle, gesturing toward some expensively packaged Italian ham. "That's the kind of thing that's left over in our society."

'We can barely keep up'

The food assistance center receives the food from organizations that collect and distribute leftovers from wholesale markets and supermarket chains. Only 18 months ago, the needy in Holweide could obtain a bag of food every Monday, but this ration has now been reduced. "Poverty has been on the rise for years, so we can barely keep up our service," says Michael Mombartz. Now, the bags are provided only once every 10 days.

Köln Holweide Tafel Michael Mombartz

Michael Mombartz has been working for the Catholic Family Center in Dellbrück-Holweide since 1997

Among other tasks, Mombartz has been supervising food distribution in Holweide and a neighboring district for almost 20 years. He is a lay pastor, organizes meetings for the homeless, coordinates a clothing depot and manages the food assistance. He uses proof of income to decide who receives a ration and who doesn't. In 2014, the number of those in need rose rapidly, he says. "Since then, it has stayed the same, but at a high level."

'Every cloud has a silver lining'

"Muslim?" asks a volunteer, and holds up a piece of Black Forest ham inquiringly. The food distribution has begun. The Syrian Samer Hasnou came to Germany only recently. He lives with his wife in their own apartment in Holweide. "Very good," he says in broken German, smiling uncertainly, and points to a green crate of food. He does not take the ham.

When the food assistance project began in 2004, there were 10 people on Mombartz' list - now, there are 120 names. Most of the people listed are single mothers, pensioners and long-term unemployed. "Now, there are also refugees who live in apartments and can cook at home," Mombartz says.

Köln Holweide Tafel Samer Hasnou

Samer Hasnou is visiting the food assistance center in Holweide for the second time

But this is not causing problems between refugees and people who have been coming to the center for a long time, according to Mombartz.

Vesna Tomic, born in Croatia, has been helping Mombartz distribute food to the needy for eight years. Equipped with a list, she is busy calling out the names of the people waiting in the next room for them to come and collect their ration one by one. "At first, everybody had to get used to the fact that they are there as well, now," she says. "We all know that they aren't coming here because it is fun for them, but because they need the help."

For a long time, Tomic was reliant on assistance herself as the single mother of two children. But Germany is a supportive country, she says. "Every cloud has a silver lining. You just have to make an effort," she says, and calls in the next person.

Feelings of shame

Mombartz sees things a little differently. "At the beginning, people always feel very ashamed to be coming here, and often even start crying. Especially when I see the older people, some of whom have worked their entire lives and have to make do now with a few hundred euros a month, I can't help thinking that things ought to be different in a country like Germany," he says, with a serious expression.

Köln Holweide Tafel Vesna Tomic

Vesna Tomic has been working as a volunteer at the food assistance center for eight years

"Without food assistance, I'd have to do without a lot," says the 75-year-old pensioner Siegrid Giga, while she packs ready-to-cook dough for dumplings, chocolate bars and carrots into a bag hanging on her walker. The sweets are for her niece, she says, with an air of satisfaction.

Jan Hoffmann is around half a century younger. He has just had his bag filled with groceries. Spaghetti can be seen poking out the top. "I am only here temporarily," he says slightly tensely. He says that he will soon have another job after being unemployed for some time.

"That happens, fortunately," says Mombartz. "People come here and tell us happily that they have found a job." But the number of those who manage to get rid of their unemployed status is very small, he says. "I think that about 5 to 10 percent achieve that on a permanent basis." The others mostly return after two or three months, he says.

Köln Holweide Tafel Jan Hoffmann

A bag for the next week: Jan Hoffmann at the entrance of the food assistance center

In the meantime, the last crate has been handed out. Vesna Tomic has laid her list aside and is helping to tidy up. The perishable food that is left over - especially lettuce - is now lying next to the bins in front of the door. There, several elderly women quickly pack several heads into their carry bags before they go home.

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