The inspiration came from the United States. A member of a Berlin women's group had read an article about volunteers in New York who were distributing discarded groceries to homeless people. "And then we thought, 'OK, we can do that too,'" Sabine Werth told DW. "We wanted to set a place at the table for those who otherwise couldn't afford it."
Together with fellow members of the group, called "Initiativgruppe Berliner Frauen," she founded the first Tafel, as food banks are called in Germany, the name being one of the German words for "table."
That was 30 years ago. The original food bank remains the largest in the country and has since become an independent registered association. And the idea spread rapidly: Today there are 936 Tafel food banks throughout Germany. Depending on how big the food banks are, the organizers go to supermarkets, local food retailers and bakeries several times a week, or even daily, to collect leftover food that is still good to eat, thus saving waste while supporting people suffering poverty.
Sometimes, large supermarket chains also deliver their excess goods to the food banks in the evenings once or twice a week. The banks are then opened for people who first need to prove their need, for example, with a document from the social welfare office, before they can pick up things like apples, sausage and bread.
"We follow the classic Robin Hood principle. We take from where there is too much and give to where it is needed. But we do it legally," said Werth smilingly.
The food bank now serves a much wider variety of people than just those in the homeless community. It provides welcome relief to many single parents, pensioners needing a top-up and refugees. For such people, it is only when a little money can be shaved off the monthly food budget that other purchases are possible, such as a child's school exercise book or a visit to the movies.
Poverty in Germany
The umbrella organization for the food banks in Germany estimates that 2 million people visited them last year — a sharp increase, about 50%, compared with the year before. Despite Germany being one of the world's richest countries, 13.8 million people there were affected by or threatened with poverty in 2022. As a rule, poverty in Germany refers to relative rather than absolute poverty. People are not facing immediate starvation or freezing. But even so, poverty in Germany still means a lack of participation in society, children having hungry days without lunch, no holiday travel and inferior education.
The food banks began as a way of saving food and alleviating hardship, but they have now become a gauge of poverty — or, as the chairperson of the national umbrella organization, Jochen Brühl, told DW, "a seismograph for societal situations and developments." He said that when the first Tafel opened in 1993, poverty was not yet a widely discussed topic in German society. According to him, the general tenor was that poverty did not exist in Germany: Whoever wanted to work, worked.
"Fortunately, that sentiment has changed dramatically over the past 30 years," Sabine Werth said. "There is no political party, no parliamentary group, nobody on the political scene who would say that there is no poverty in Germany."
Brühl says that this is partly down to the existence of food banks, with the fact that there is one in almost every city making poverty very tangible.
'Food is political'
A visit to one of the many food banks in Germany quickly provides a sense of this. In Eitorf, a village near Bonn, Paul Hüsson gives a tour of the food bank he runs with 56 volunteers. With a touch of noticeable pride, he leads the way to the courtyard where goods are distributed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and opens a small warehouse where bags of pasta, packets of flour and tins of vegetables are stacked. It does not take long for Hüsson to become political. He maintains that welfare payments are too low, and says that the €9 ($9.50) monthly public transport ticket, a pilot project that ran throughout Germany from June to August 2022, was a blessing for those with little money.
The food banks often intervene in sociopolitical debates — and that is intentional. "If we are genuinely engaging with these issues, that automatically makes us political," said Brühl. "Not in the sense of being affiliated with any particular political party. But we have influence at a sociopolitical level because we hold up a mirror to society and show what is obviously not working in some places." Or, as Sabine Werth puts it succinctly at the door to the Tafel in Berlin: "'Food is political."
Hüsson explained that he himself had much to learn about how complex poverty is. Currently, half the clients of his food bank are children. "That cuts deep," he said, pointing toward his heart.
Keeping the state at arm's length
Ever since the food banks formed, there has also been criticism, with some saying they make things too easy for the state and people in need. What becomes clear in conversations with food bank volunteers and leaders, however, is that they expressly do not want to be a part of the government social welfare system.
All of them emphasize that it is wrong for social welfare offices to send people to food banks when they say their monthly allowances are not enough. "We are increasingly slipping into a situation where some are pricing us into our welfare system. But we do not want that, and we are vehemently opposed to it," said Brühl. In Berlin, said Sabine Werth, the food bank does not accept any financial support from the state for that reason, in order to maintain its independence.
What does the future hold for food banks?
The past three years have been extremely challenging for the food banks. Inflation, the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic have caused considerable strain, with a 50% increase in people in need. Many of the institutions are at their limit, as Brühl notes. But despite this, they keep going, he says.
At this 30-year milestone the food banks are reflecting on their development — from that first site in Berlin to hundreds throughout Germany, along with a sociopolitical advocacy role. But Sabine Werth waves aside the question of her vision for the next three decades. "I never thought in those dimensions," she said. "Thirty years ago, I never thought that we would be where we are now. Food bank work is full of new surprises every day."
Jochen Brühl says he thinks that the Tafel food banks' future is guaranteed. "I believe food banks will reinvent themselves as needed," he says, because they always react to what is happening in society, not the other way around.
Paul Hüsson in Eitorf is focused on practical concerns: He is trying to find new premises, as the current ones are slowly becoming too small. It looks as though food banks will still be needed in 30 years' time, even in affluent Germany.
This article was originally written in German.
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