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German food banks in crisis

July 16, 2023

Inflation and an influx of refugees in Germany have put growing pressure on food banks. Will the state step into the breach?

Customers wait outside a Munich food bank
Many food banks have seen the number of people dependent on discounted groceries doubleImage: Frank Hoermann/SVEN SIMON/picture alliance

Germany's over 900 food banks, overseen by charitable organization Tafel e.V., support anyone who can prove they're facing financial hardship. But fewer and fewer companies are donating to these food banks, although demand is growing amid high inflation and the influx of Ukrainian refugees. That's why food banks are now calling on the German state for help.

The growing need for food aid is clearly evident in Berlin's Köpenick district, where the fan center for Bundesliga team FC Union Berlin has been converted into a grocery distribution point. A line of people are standing outside in the blistering heat, waiting to enter. It's 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) and there's no shade in sight.

Denise Lauer is making her first visit to a food bank. For a long time, she was too reluctant and ashamed to go. "I wanted to try it out," she told DW. "But in the past, I was too embarrassed."

Lauer, a single parent with a son, said "it has become increasingly difficult to make ends because of the high food costs." Today, though, she has gathered all her courage and is looking forward to taking home a basket of groceries sold for just €1.50 ($1.70) — the same price for everyone.

Volunteers sort through and organize food donations
At the center, volunteers sort and organize food donationsImage: Volker Witting/DW

Food costs have risen by almost 15% compared to last year, with inflation standing at 7.3%, according to Germany's Federal Statistical Office.

For many, this means money is tight, which is why they are relying on food banks to get by. Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, 20% of German food banks have seen the number of people dependent on discounted groceries double, reports Tafel's federal association.

"Before the war, no more than 340 people would come to our distribution days on Tuesdays, but now, there are often well over 500," Carol Seele, a volunteer manager at the Köpenick food bank, told DW. "Last Friday, we had 564 customers," added fellow volunteer Rita Hirsch, who keeps precise records for the church-run distribution center.

'More and more customers because of the war'

"We have seen more and more customers because of the war," said Seele. "Fortunately, we have not yet had to limit admission."

Anyone with the necessary paperwork proving they are in need can receive food aid. However, other food banks have already begun reducing the amount of food they hand out per person, and some have also even stopped accepting new people.

Food banks in crisis

Tetyana Kudyna fled the war in Ukrainian with her young son; her husband and older son have remained in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Kudyna visits the food bank every Tuesday with her boy. "It helps me save plenty of money," she told DW. It's also an opportunity meet and chat with other Germans and Ukrainians, which she said is a "welcome distraction."

Volunteers in Berlin founded Germany's first Tafel food bank in 1993. The organization says it supports some 2 million people, with regional branches receiving food and financial donations. They also see support from major supermarket chains such as Rewe, Lidl and Aldi, who donate surplus food and items with small blemishes that would otherwise end up in the trash.

Lifeline for poor people

German food banks are there to help people living in poverty, namely those who have less than 60% of the median net income at their disposal. In Germany, going by this definition, around 13 million people are considered to live below the poverty line.

But food donations have been declining for some time, the Tafel federal association told DW. There are several reasons for this, according to Andreas Steppuhn, the newly elected Tafel chairman. "One factor is that supermarkets now tend to operate more economically so that they don't have so much food left over at the end of the day," he said. "We welcome this in principle, because we always think it's good when food waste is minimized. However, food banks currently need more food donations to supporting the growing numbers of customers."

A black and white picture shows Sabine Werth loading a car with groceries
Sabine Werth founded Germany's first Tafel food bank in 1993Image: Berliner Tafel e.V.

Steppuhn said Tafel food banks, which operate independently, are in crisis. He said they cannot make up for the state's failings and that the "political establishment must fulfill its duties." He wants to retain the organization's autonomy, but has nevertheless called for "basic [state] funding, so that the Tafel can guarantee its work and support." So far, however, it remains unclear whether the German state will back this idea.

Lauer, the first-time visitor to the food bank, told DW she was surprised and impressed to see "that people do this work on a voluntary basis." Indeed, the Tafel relies on the goodwill of some 60,000 volunteers.

She said she will definitely return to the food bank to help her get through these difficult times.

This article was originally published in German.

Volker Witting
Volker Witting Volker Witting has been a political correspondent for DW-TV and online for more than 20 years.