Europe is one of the richest regions in the world. And yet over 96 million people in the EU (roughly 22% of the total EU population) are at risk of poverty or social exclusion. For some households, even affording nutritious food can be a challenge, which can have serious health and social consequences. This is where ‘food banks’ step in. They collect surplus food and distribute it to people in need. But how is it that people in one of the richest regions on the planet need to rely on food banks?
COVID-19 has made the situation worse. The pandemic was initially described as the “Great Equaliser”, i.e. a situation that affected everyone equally. Reality, however, has shown the opposite to be the case; social inequality has actually grown in the wake of the pandemic. While the rich have become even richer, many Europeans do not even have enough for the most basic necessities. According to the European Food Banks Federation, demand for food aid across the EU has shot up during the pandemic (with demand almost doubling in the worst-affected countries).
What do our readers think? Members of the Debating Europe community have been discussing why we still need food banks in Europe. Some, like Catherine, lash out at migrants for the fact that European welfare institutions are overstretched. Others, like Scott, think that wage stagnation and gaps in our social welfare systems (with working people earning less than they need to survive) and a general increase in poverty are responsible, also pointing to the problem of food waste.
We took their discussion to Jacques Vandenschrik, President of the European Food Banks Federation (FEBA). FEBA is a network of more than 300 food banks in 29 European countries that aims to prevent food waste and reduce food insecurity. What did he think was the reason for the increased demand for food aid across Europe?
Food banks and those organisations running food banks do not want to exist. Unfortunately, it is society that perpetuates the condition in which food banks become more and more indispensable. We still need food banks because there is still a lot of hunger, and we still need food banks because there is still a lot of waste. Much of what food banks distribute is available to charities free of charge. Food banks recycle food that is perfectly edible and can be consumed with a high degree of safety, and that is why we are fighting against food waste.
Food banks are often actually logistical centres that recover food, store it, and then distribute it to charities, with the charities having direct contact with the recipients. In most countries, this is the case. In the Netherlands and Germany the food banks do have direct contact with the recipients, but in all other countries of the European Union there is no direct contact…
We are 335 food banks in Europe and we have more than 48,000 charities affiliated to food banks. If you look at the evolution of the situation from 2014 to 2019 (a period when there was a lot of migration), the percentage of people facing severe material deprivation has actually decreased. It was over 7%, now it is 5.6% of the total population. If you do the rough math, 5.6% of the population of the EU-27 countries is almost 30 million people.
We, as food banks, can help 12.8 million people with the enormous support of more than 48,000 charities. So, we don’t even reach half of the people who are materially severely disadvantaged. This means that these people cannot afford a balanced meal every other day. So, if you ask me why there are still food banks, I think the answer is obvious: because they are needed. And we would like to see a society without food banks and without charities, but it will take some time to get there.
For another perspective, we also asked Prof. Dr. Sabine Pfeiffer, a sociologist at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg, and author of a book on nutritional poverty in Germany. Why does she think we still need food banks in Europe?
I would say the reason is rather that we have had a decline in wages in relation to productivity growth for four decades. So, we have more and more poor people and, of course, there is a reason for that. It’s not that we have lower productivity – we have high productivity – but much more [of the income generated] goes to wealthier people, and no longer to the middle class. That is the reason why we have more poverty.
If more people come into a country without qualifications, of course that doesn’t improve the situation. It can make the situation worse for the people who are already living here and are poor. Of course, these two developments have something to do with each other, but the real reason lies in our history of falling wages.
Our reader Catherine is outraged that so many people in her home country, the UK, rely on food banks. She says: “We have a duty to keep our population alive without them having to queue with their children at food banks.” What do we need to do about food poverty in Europe?
What does our expert on food poverty in Germany, Prof. Dr. Sabine Pfeiffer, say to Catherine’s comment?
That is a big question. I would say that the first thing we need to do is to bring productivity development and wages back together. We need good skills for young people and we need higher wages so that older people don’t end up in poverty just because they retire, which is increasingly the case. And I think taking care of the population is something that politics should do. Politics should care about people and we shouldn’t need food subsidies. The fact that we need them in Europe, especially in countries like Germany where I come from – it’s shameful that we have to rely on food banks. We really need to get rid of this situation.
What do we need to do to end food poverty in Europe? We also put Catherine’s question to Jacques Vandenschrik. What does he think?
I think we could take inspiration from some experiences from outside Europe. For example, in South Africa, zero VAT was introduced on staple foods, which made food less expensive. We would hope that if this was done, the difference would not just turn into an extra profit margin for retailers, but that is of course a risk.
Increasing social benefits or the minimum wage seems obvious. But transforming food aid, as provided by food banks and their staff, into an increase in income would involve an enormous financial burden. I did a study on the situation in my home country, Belgium. In southern Belgium, 400,000 people live below the poverty line. If we gave all of them three euros every day (not even much money) to feed themselves or to help them feed themselves a little better, we would have used up the entire Belgian food aid budget within 10 days. That shows how valuable food aid is. But that’s only the economic part, now comes the more important part.
Many charities use food aid as a way to strengthen social cohesion. And this is an aspect that cannot be solved with a credit card or an increase in the amount of money available to people. They make sure that the beneficiaries can better manage their household expenses. They ensure that some of the food provided is given to the children. Food aid is a part of social assistance. It is not only about giving food, but also about love, about humanity, about care and friendship. And I think this is a very important aspect of food banks.
Why do we still need foodbanks in Europe? How can it be that so many people in one of the wealthiest parts of the world are dependent on food banks? What do we need to end food poverty in Europe? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!
Image Credits: Bigstock (c) HalfPoint
Editorially independent content supported by: Fondazione Cariplo. See our FAQ for more details.