Food bank row exposes resource battle among German poor
One ‘Tafel’ has faced criticism for excluding migrants from new donations
People wait nearby a vehicle of the ‘Essener Tafel’ (Essen Foodbank) smeared with the word “Nazis” in Essen, Germany last month. Photograph: Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images
Each week, thousands of volunteers around Germany don red vests to collect and distribute unwanted food. Around 1.5 million people in one of Europe’s most prosperous countries are dependent on hand-outs from a network of 2,100 food banks, called “Tafel”.
When one Tafel closed its doors temporarily to migrants, however, it found itself the target of public attacks and protest marches.
The Tafel food bank in the western city of Essen said growing numbers of non-German clients meant that, for now, they were prioritising food distribution to existing clients. Until pressure eased they would only sign up German nationals to the scheme.
That prompted a huge row that has morphed into a proxy war, reviving unaddressed migration crisis fears and pent-up frustration about declining social cohesion.
The man at the centre of the furore, 61 year-old Jörg Sartor, has gone from bewildered to furious. His decision has been misrepresented as racist, he says, by people who know little about the dire situation on the ground.
And the growing attacks are, he says, a slap in the face to his team who have collected food near best-before dates to feed the needy of Essen for two decades.
“People who accuse us of being racist have lost their marbles,” said Mr Sartor.
He decided on the temporary measure because 75 per cent of their clients are now migrants, well beyond their share of the population. Many migrants, he said, misunderstood the nature of the Tafel.
“Many feel we are obliged to give them food and that we are a state organisation, which we’re not,” he said. Increased shoving and shouting in the queue, he said “meant our other elderly customers in particular no longer felt comfortable, nor did our staff”.
At the weekend the Essen Tafel centre was picketed and and delivery vans vandalised with “Nazi” graffiti.
“The rule imposed here is racist,” said Britta Suessbach, a demonstrator, “because food should be distributed based on need, not nationality”.
Other Tafel outlets in Germany have criticised the Essen decision. They have coped with a similar surge of non-German customers without shutting out migrants. Instead they have experimented with lotteries, alternative-day distribution and an appointments system.
The first Tafel opened its doors in Berlin in 1993, redistributing vegetables and fruit to homeless people. But demand has grown exponentially since German welfare reforms of the mid-2000s, say organisers.
Today Germany’s blockbuster economic data – record growth and low jobless rate – overshadows how 6 per cent of the population are classified as poor while 20 per cent are threatened by poverty. Around half of those who are fed by Tafel outlets are pensioners and children.
While food donations in 2016 rose by 11 per cent, the number of recipients has jumped by almost 20 per cent – thanks in part to an additional 280,000 migrant clients, some of more than one million refugees and asylum seekers now living in Germany.
After years of managing and stabilising the status quo, critics say the Tafel system has reached its limits, increasing pressure once more on politicians to address the root causes of poverty.
When Chancellor Angela Merkel weighed into the debate – saying it was “not good” to distinguish between people at food banks – she was attacked by Tafel chief Jochen Brühl.
“We don’t let ourselves be reprimanded by the chancellor for what is a consequence of her politics,” he said, citing an “enormous poverty problem”, “unbelievable low-wage sector”, “inadequate basic welfare” and “half-cocked immigration policy”.
The opposition Left Party has accused the German leader of being “sanctimonious” for taking in migrants but refusing to address the consequences of that decision: a growing battle for food, housing and other resources.
“This is about those who are already struggling in our society now in addition having to carry the burden of immigration,” said Dr Sahra Wagenknecht of the Left Party, seeing a wider poverty puzzle. “One cannot instrumentalise these debates because they are grist to the mill of the AfD to crank up xenophobia.”
The far-right Alternative für Deutschland and anti-Muslim Pegida movement have cheered the Essen decision, warning on Twitter: “Immigration without limits hits the weakest and destabilises the social system.”