Amsterdam ranks 12th on the 2017 Mercer Quality of Living Survey. As the city belongs to the global top-notch list of human settlements with the best ensemble in terms of political, socioeconomic and natural environmental factors, it makes one wonder if it has managed to eradicate poverty altogether. According to the Netherlands Institute of Social Research, during 2013 Amsterdam had the highest concentration of people in poverty, with a respective rate of 14.4% compared with the Dutch national average of 7.7%. Weekly, the Amsterdam Food Bank provides circa 1.200 households in Amsterdam with food packages. The charitable organisation operates via 13 distribution points, by means of 15 intervals and with the noble assistance of over 400 volunteers. Moreover, the organisation’s warehouse similarly serves as the regional distribution centre of the province of North Holland. The following is an interview with Margje Polman Tuin, intake manager at the Amsterdam Food Bank.
HP: Are the developments with regard to poverty increase reflected back in the number of clients of the Amsterdam Food Bank and what strategy do you adopt in order to eventually make your clients self-sufficient?
“In terms of absolute numbers, the client group of all food banks in the Netherlands is getting smaller. However, the group that is forced to fall back on our services on a long-term basis, is on the increase. We are talking about people aged 40 and older that, besides unemployment, are often felled by chronic illness, heavy financial debts and other problems of personal nature. This development is largely in line with the latest figures of the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics – despite a decrease in the wealth gap in the Netherlands, the amount of people living in persistent poverty has thus risen.
Our organisation is a private initiative that was established with a threefold goal: to help those living in absolute poverty, to counteract food waste and to stimulate our clients to ultimately become autonomous. In the light of the latter, our point of departure is that our assistance should only be seen as a supplement to our client’s own efforts. Therefore, we expect our clients to actively seek for suitable solutions themselves by soliciting help of the social services. We call this: no food package without a sound trajectory”.
HP: Over 2 billion kilograms of food is thrown away every year in the Netherlands. What role does the Amsterdam Food Bank play with regard to awareness raising in this area?
“One of the main reasons of food waste in the Netherlands relates to expiry dates. Nationwide, many Dutch food banks tirelessly educate consumers with regard to the differences between the best before and use by terminologies. Most food products that are categorised with a best before shelf life signature, are still edible without risk after the so-called expiry date. The difference lies in the fact that the food producers in question no longer guarantee the quality of the respective item, but this often means that the product can still be consumed. The Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority, endorse this mindset and has accordingly drafted guidelines for charitable institutions in the Netherlands such as the food bank.
Furthermore, the fact that schools and enterprises in the Netherlands actively participate in the collection of food, gives us a solid platform to emphasise on the concept of long shelf-life food”.
HP: The leader of the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, has stated that the accelerating global urbanisation is a threat to food security, but that cities themselves could be the answer to the problem. Having said this, how would you describe the synergy between your organisation and the municipality of Amsterdam?
“It’s a gratifying relationship and the municipality, and all districts, always make their best effort to help whenever feasible and possible. In practice, this translates not only in granting us with subsidies but also in keeping an open communication line. As an example, after we informed the municipality about the difficulties that some of our clients run into when dealing with the nitty-gritty of public bureaucracy, they agreed to send civil servants to the Amsterdam Food Bank in order to accommodate the respective clients. After all, the relief efforts offered by the municipality are endless whereas a part of our clients is functionally illiterate.
In the borough of Zuid-Oost, the municipality has addressed the calls of our volunteers that have indicated that many clients miss breakfast in order to be the first ones in line at the food bank. Subsequently, the municipality started offering nutritious breakfasts for €1 on the site. Similarly, a while ago they called a 13-week lasting project into existence, in order to highlight the importance of fruit consumption among customers of the food bank”.
HP: The tension field between food banks and the actual European migrant crisis is a topical issue. What is the position of the Amsterdam Food Bank in respect of refugees and undocumented residents?
“This is a complex situation indeed, but the guiding principle is that refugees that have been granted a status, are provisionally admitted by us as clients. On the other hand, undocumented residents cannot make use of our services, apart from some exceptional cases. In such circumstances, we will always be in close consultation with sparring partners, such as the Salvation Army and the Dutch Council for Refugees”.
HP: On balance, what is most needed within the Amsterdam Food Bank at present?
“We are always in need of fresh and nutritious food. Hence, the button on our site entitled: concede every inhabitant of Amsterdam a healthy meal. For the small amount of €3.50, one is able to donate a nutritious platter of food to someone in need. It goes without saying that we are consistently open to people wanting to volunteer. That is individuals that want to incite social change in their city of residence, no matter their background. Lastly, we everlastingly welcome financial contributions, for this helps us to build and maintain a well-oiled logistical apparatus. Our preference goes to parties that are interested in offering financial support for a longer period of time.
Having returned from a repeated trip to India a while ago, and struck once again by the extreme wealth inequalities in that nation, made me deeply consider what the common purpose of the Amsterdam Food Bank actually is. But every time I see the grateful faces of our clients, I realise that it’s exceedingly unfair to make such comparisons. After all, we are indeed a glimmer of hope for people going through a chain of adversities within a Dutch reality”.