Food Banks

In my town there seem to be only few opportunities for binning. The trash cans of the supermarkets, grocery stores and bakeries are locked away behind fences and shutters. Enter these, and you commit an act of trespassing or burglary. On the other hand, the food bank in my neighbourhood looks well equipped. As least when I shop there, its shelves are stuffed with goods that are still way before expiration date.

This is, it seems, a well-honed system. The supermarkets, grocery stores, bakeries donate food (it’s mostly food, only rarely durable goods like oil or washing powder) without having to pay VAT or for the disposal of goods no longer suitable for sale. The food banks get groceries in a sufficient quantity, the needy people can cover at least their need for vegetables, fruits, bakery and meat produces. Only dairy products are in short supply.

In my country, Germany, 1,5 million people (of 81 million) rely on or purchase at food banks. Since 1993 a secondary market has thus been established, in which consumers, retailers, and distributors form a distribution system for low budget households parallel to the primary market.

This secondary market has been intentionally created. Even as born in 1993 with the attitude of charity, the food bank system is now an integral part of the stripped down unemployment and social security system forced upon the populace by the Social Democrats and the Green Party in the era of chancellor Gerhard Schröder (1998-2005). The steep cuts in benefits had been intended to hurt in order to force people to accept any low paying job in a job market that had newly been created at the same time via austerity and deregulation. “Who doesn’t work shall not eat”, Franz Müntefering, chairman of the SPD and Secretary of Labour and Social Affairs in the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, (in)famously said in 2006. Today, when you apply for social benefits, the Job Centre will provide you automatically with application forms for an identification card for shopping at the food bank.

There are many issues with this secondary market. But the one I want to highlight is that national governments as well as city councils not only privatized social security by outsourcing former services to privately run (non-profit) organizations. They not only changed what had until then been enforceable rights of a citizenry into charitable offers one now has to apply for and whose availability are not ensured. Not only did they change the whole concept of social security from a right to an act of mercy. They could only do all this because the people working in those charitable organizations are volunteers who don’t get paid.

What already struck me on my first visit at the local food bank was the exhaustion in the faces of the volunteers. Driving to the markets to collect the donations, sorting the good and the worse products, organizing and managing the flow of people coming to the store, manning the counters and the cash-desks are demanding tasks, often not thanked much by the people who come in. It’s easy for a business to donate its surplus goods when it doesn’t have to think about transport, storage, cooling. It’s easy for the local Job Centre to hand out forms that tells food banks that this person is entitled to buy food when it’s the food banks’ task to issue and manage the identification cards. It’s easy (and tempting) to outsource social security especially when it comes with the additional effect of saving costs because one relies on the labour of volunteers at the next church or non-profit association.

I don’t feel comfortable with buying my food at the food bank. Not because it is a secondary market, which, in itself, I could accept. But that this secondary market rests on the work of unappreciated, exhausted volunteers makes me cringe. The alternatives seem obvious: binning the trash cans of local groceries or offering my assistance and volunteer. But doing the latter means that my contribution will perpetuate this exploitative arrangement. Like in the restaurant industry, where the solidarity between employees in helping each other out in the face of overburdening workload is intentionally factored into the cost calculation by the employer.

The most pervasive and sublime form of exploitation is the one that takes advantage of the humane desire to help somebody else. It forces the employee (or volunteer) to either self-exploit by helping others (and stay humane) or to behave anti-social for reasons of self-preservation. Either way, we lose.

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