Between abundance and scarcity

Between abundance and scarcity

Tafel employees distribute food © Patrick Seeger

Refugees and pensioners have also been coming for a long time: the mostly volunteer helpers at the Tafel distribution points in Germany have a lot to do. 25 years after the founding of the umbrella organization of the Tafel, they seem more important than ever.

It is an idea that impresses above all by its simplicity: companies produce surpluses, while the socially needy often lack the most basic necessities at the end of the month. So why not simply distribute surplus food to those in need? In the early 1990s, a women’s initiative in Berlin began to implement this idea and founded an initiative for it in the city in 1993: That was the birth of the first food bank. Similar initiatives in the USA served as a model.

More than 900 have been added over the years. 60.000 volunteers are involved and help around 1.5 million people to make ends meet every month. The Tafeln are supported by charities and citizens’ associations. And for 25 years now, there has been the umbrella organization of the Tafeln, which, with its employees, primarily takes care of logistics.

Praise and criticism

Despite all the praise, for some years now there has also been criticism of the so-called Tafel movement. The main accusation is that the food banks have moved away from their original approach as an emergency solution and are now serving as a kind of alibi for politicians.

One of the biggest critics is the social scientist Stefan Selke. For him, it’s not a question of yes or no, the scientist emphasizes again and again. The Tafeln, which take care of needy people, in principle did valuable work. What is really needed, however, are political solutions such as a poverty-preventing minimum income, Selke said. His initiative "Critical Action Alliance 20 Years of Tables" was also joined by individual Caritas and Diakonie associations.

The Tafeln counter: Of course, the movement must be careful not to be taken over – not by politics, not by food chains, they argue. And of course they would have made mistakes and learned over the years. At the same time, the federal association stresses that the Tafeln have never claimed to provide a full supply; that is clearly the task of the state.

Instead, the Tafeln want to make it possible for people to perhaps also be able to afford a cultural event sometimes.

Greatly changed customer structure

In addition, the structure of customers has changed considerably in recent years, according to Jochen Bruhl, chairman of the Federal Association of Food Banks in Germany. In the beginning, the Tafeln mainly supported homeless people, then came ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union. Even before the summer of 2015, refugees had increasingly sought help. The boards are therefore a "seismograph" of society.

The fact that individual food bank associations sometimes resort to rigorous measures became very clear two years ago. At the time, the Essen Tafel declared that it would only accept new needy people with German passports into its file. The reason, he said, was that the proportion of migrants had recently risen to three quarters of the population. Bruhl distanced itself from the measure. During the Corona lockdown and even afterward, many food banks showed flexibility, bagging food and taking it directly to those in need.

For Sabine Werth, who was part of the women’s initiative 27 years ago, the Tafel movement is something like a life’s work. And over the years, she has learned to deal with criticism more calmly. Many people who visited the Tafel came because the facility had also become an important contact point for another reason. According to the 63-year-old Tafel founder, valuable encounters and friendships were formed there.

Werth was also the one who launched another Tafel initiative about 15 years ago: to distribute the collected food more quickly, she approached Berlin church congregations. In the meantime, there are more than 40 distribution points, which help around 50,000 people.000 needy Berliners take advantage of. This model has set a precedent. In other large cities such as Hamburg and Cologne, the food banks now also use church congregations or other social institutions as distribution points.

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