Increased poverty stretches German food banks to the limit
About half of Germany’s food banks have seen their number of clients double since last year, and many are turning people away. Increasing demand and decreasing donations are leaving many in need of help with few options.
This is Lilifer Kus who lives in Fürstenfeldbruck, Germany Lilifer works five days a week at a butcher’s shop, but every Thursday morning she can be found at her local food bank, collecting the supplies she needs to feed her family.
And her colleagues don’t know she comes here.
“They would bad-mouth me and I don’t want that,” she says.
Lilifer, 46, has been coming to the food bank (known in Germany as a “Tafel”) in Fürstenfeldbruck, a town half an hour from the southern German city of Munich, since 2011.
That was when she got divorced and became a single mother to her four children.
She’s one of around 150 people who visit this food bank every week — mothers and fathers, pensioners and refugees. Like the others, she doesn’t have enough money to feed herself and her family.
Lilifer Kusearns about 825 euros per month and gets an extra 500 euros in welfare because of her low wages.
Already struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation has further worsened amid rising costs of living and a looming recession. Local newspapers across the country are filled with headlines about needy people being turned away by overwhelmed volunteers, who have begun stretching dwindling supplies even further in order to support longstanding clients.
Food banks ‘at absolute capacity’
“Requests for membership have increased significantly,” since the start of 2022, confirmed Günter Giesa. He is a frequent volunteer for the Tafel, as food banks are called in Germany, for the city of Bonn.
“Right now, we can only take on new clients if other people cancel their memberships. We are at absolute capacity,” said Giesa, adding that it was a shame, because “people are increasingly anxious about their finances, and need our help.”
Indeed, some 13.8 million people in Germany already live close to or below the poverty line. Given that the number of energy-poor households is expected to have doubled from 2021 to 2022, experts are worried that this number will increase drastically as lower middle-class households without financial reserves to pay skyrocketing bills will move down the economic ladder.
War and inflation leading to increasing need
According to the latest figures from Tafel Deutschland, the umbrella organization for Germany’s food banks, about 61% of the 960 locations across the country have registered an increase in demand for new memberships of at least 50% compared to the previous year. About 30% have twice as many clients.
This has been driven partly by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. According to Giesa, “the first weeks of March were extremely difficult. Many people arrived with no euros, no money at all, nothing but the clothes on their backs.”
This experience was echoed by Kat, 45, who described chaotic scenes from the early spring: “They had a separate line for the new arrivals, and in some cases, altercations broke out between them and the longstanding German customers, who thought they were being given special treatment.”
More and more are being turned away
Now, as Ukrainian refugees have been integrated into the routine system, most of the new arrivals at the Tafel are families and individuals hit hard by the cost of living crisis. Kat, an adult student and mother of one, has long accompanied an elderly friend on her weekly visit to the Tafel, and tried signing up herself this summer — only to be one of the many people turned away by the food bank in the Ehrenfeld district of Cologne.
The situation is grim, Kat said. “People have to stand in the rain for hours waiting. The donations arrive and the volunteers take what they want from it first, before the customers are shuffled through and handed things at random — mostly fruit and vegetables, a lot of bread — things that go off quickly. We were given boxes of raspberries covered in mould.” As for other necessities including toilet paper, tampons, and diapers, there were none on hand.
Volunteers at the sign-up counter treated her with disdain, she said, advising her to try again in January.
“Circumstances indeed become drastic in recent weeks,” said Günter Giesa about the number of people being turned away. He also emphasized the need for people to donate “items with a long shelf life like pasta, rice, and canned goods,” rather than produce and fresh milk.
He said that the Bonn Tafel was already having to give people smaller amounts of food in order to help as many people as possible.
Appeal for solidarity
Statistics from Tafel Deutschland paint a similarly bleak picture. At least 62% of food banks reported in August that they were giving fewer items to every household, a number likely to have increased since then. About half of food banks have increased their hours in order to address the crisis, leading to physical and mental health struggles for volunteer workers. The organization also reported a “significant decrease” in donations as more people tighten their budgets.
Tafel Deutschland recently launched an appeal, asking for solidarity as “more people are in need of support this fall and the colder months…call your local food bank and ask what they require most.”