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Food Banks in Amsterdam: More Than Just Your Daily Bread

The food bank in Bos and Lommer is small and nondescript, lodged within an apartment building complex on a short, dead-end street. Two people sit outside the building enjoying grilled cheese sandwiches, about an hour before food distribution begins. On the windows behind them a few signs are posted, one of which asks for enthusiastic volunteers. On the first floor of the building, a few people busily pile food into blue crates. Some of the crates sit beneath a hand-written sign that reads "halal." An elderly white woman wearing round spectacles jokes with a woman wearing a headscarf and a tall, black man as they sort through bread, bags of lettuce, and toilet paper. Some of the crates have an extra treat that reflects the enthusiasm for the World Cup that was sweeping the country for the past few weeks: orange vlaai cake, decorated with soccer balls and the flag of Amsterdam. A slim and energetic woman in a long, blue dress and white heels makes tea and sandwiches in the kitchen for the volunteers. Right off the kitchen, a storage room is filled with non-perishable items in jars, boxes, and bags.

In the midst of this busy distribution day, we meet Isa Seven, an older man with a generous disposition, and the coordinator of the Bos and Lommer food bank. When we tell him that we are writing on the evolving role of the food bank in Amsterdam, he graciously provides us with information about its history and operations. At 1:30 pm, people begin to trickle into the food bank, as we finish our interview in an office on the second floor. When we come back downstairs, we see families collecting their weekly food packages. A woman in a headscarf arrives with her daughter in a motorized wheelchair. They collect their food in a large, plaid plastic bag, squeeze it between their ankles, and roll away. A young woman stuffs her food into what looks like a designer handbag. One of the volunteers fills the crate on her tricycle with several bags, and rides off to deliver packages to a few families who are disabled and unable to come to the food bank in person.

Every week, between 140 and 160 food packages are distributed from Bos and Lommer, serving different types of households. Bos and Lommer is one of twelve food banks in larger Amsterdam, which together comprise Food Bank Amsterdam. A common denominator for individuals receiving food aid in Amsterdam is severe problems balancing income and expenses. The food bank employs norms in determining whether a household can utilize its services; only the very poorest are eligible.

In just a few years, Food Bank Amsterdam has brought together independent, community-based initiatives that government officials doubted could play a substantial role in the fight against poverty, under a centralized institution boasting several branches throughout Amsterdam and supported by the city government. As such, it is fulfilling multiple functions beyond simply providing food aid. The food banks serve as a bridge between individuals who may find themselves socially isolated due to their economic situation, and institutions that can help these individuals work their way out of poverty. Moreover, these places provide opportunities for individuals to involve themselves in an active community of volunteers. Finally, they have an important signaling function: their existence makes poverty visible, and provides a space where the causes and effects of poverty can be observed and reevaluated. However, we also found that the food bank is facing many challenges as the current economic crisis continues to expand.

History and philosophy of the food bank

An attempt to conquer food waste has always been at the core of the food bank's mission. This is reflected by a quote by Mother Theresa posted on its homepage: "What frustrates me most is not the existence of poor people and rich people, it is the squandering." A second pillar on which Food Bank Amsterdam was built – although this point is sometimes overlooked – is the eradication of poverty.

The presence of this resource in Amsterdam is a relatively new phenomenon. In March 2005, the first food distribution center opened its doors in the Zuidoost neighborhood. At that time, 50 food packages were distributed weekly. Since then, the number of regional food banks has increased to twelve. Data indicates that over 1000 packages are distributed weekly, with about 2500 beneficiaries.

The organization’s operations are coordinated in a hangar at the central office, also the place where food is collected before delivery to distribution sites throughout the city. At this central hangar—a huge hall in the middle of an industrial setting—we are welcomed by Hille Hoogland, one of the three paid employees of Food Bank Amsterdam.

Hoogland, a dedicated Dutch woman in her thirties, has been involved in the organization since its very beginnings. She started to volunteer for the food bank in 2006. At that time, she was conducting research on the way in which customers of the Amsterdam East branch experienced both food shortage and aid. Currently, among other tasks, she coordinates the intake process.

The establishment of Food Bank Amsterdam was not without controversy. The idea that food banks should be needed in a wealthy country such as the Netherlands was met with widespread shame among politicians and the general public. In 2008, the State Secretary of Social Affairs and former Alderman of Amsterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, articulated these feelings by stating that "given the current level of welfare and the current social securities, food banks should not be there." During the same period, Ahmed Marcouch, District Mayor of Amsterdam Slotervaart, asserted that food banks do not provide any long-term solution since they do not provide people with education, debt relief or jobs. He criticized the relationship of dependency that might arise between the food bank and its clients. This initial resistance was even reflected in the goal, stated when the Bos and Lommer branch first opened, to eradicate the food bank by 2011.

At the root of these criticisms lies a reluctance to acknowledge that, despite social services and government policies, poverty does exist in the Netherlands. Politicians perceive the existence of these food banks as pointing to a failure of the social safety net. However, the presence of poverty has been documented by different scholars here since at least the 1990s. In the Poverty Monitor Amsterdam, over 400.000 households were indicated as being "poor" in 2008.

What is meant by the term "poor" is debatable, of course. Regardless, the fact is that Food Bank Amsterdam fulfills a very real need. There is a growing group of residents that have a hard time achieving the most basic standard of living. This group cannot pay for their central heating, let alone go on holiday. They fear opening the door to find an eviction official at their doorstep. The population that requires food aid consists of individuals who are deprived of social capital, and somehow cannot keep up with the pace of modern capitalist society.

Access to the food bank

A variety of scenarios could lead individuals to the food bank. In her thesis research, Hoogland has discerned three main reasons. First, people in financial trouble often do not make full use of the social services to which they are technically entitled, such as rent subsidies, discounts for health care, etc. Second, expenditures for rent, gas, water and electricity have risen considerably in the past few years – at a faster pace than social welfare and minimum wage. Third, some clients are individuals who have suffered an unexpected life event: a death, illness, or other emergency. Moreover, many of the individuals in these three categories may be struggling to repay their debts through the government-sponsored debt-cleaning program. All of these factors may accumulate, leading to an structural imbalance in the household budget in which expenses are always higher than income.

30-40% of those obtaining food packages are from single-parent households. Hoogland's experience working in the food bank has made her more aware of how these households face many unaddressed needs. At the Central Amsterdam food bank where she is coordinator, 60% of those requiring food packages are women. However, she points out, just because women are the ones requesting the food packages does not mean that no men exists in their families. Hoogland also explained that people showing up to receive food aid reflect the population of the neighborhood where that particular bank is located. At Bos and Lommer, poverty does not distinguish by ethnic background. Isa Seven emphatically declares that all types of people come seeking aid, including Turks, Moroccans and Dutch. The 140 to 160 families every week range in size from one person to ten each.

In order to obtain a package at any of the food banks in Amsterdam, an individual must first set up an interview in which he/she has to provide proof of income and expenses during the past three months. This means that the applicant must show documents related to his/her bank account, income, tax refunds, rent, energy and water bills, local taxes, debts, health insurance, and, if possible, a letter from the organization that referred him/her to the food bank. After all expenses are taken into account, the applicant must show his/her disposable income to be below a certain amount in order to be eligible for a food package. For example, if the person is single with no children, his/her disposable income after all expenses should be below 175 euros. If the person is single with one child below the age of 12, they may not have a disposable income of more than 200 euros. If a couple has 2 children between the ages of 13 and 18, their disposable income may not be more than 335 euros.

Although these requirements can be seen as a barrier to obtaining food aid, Hoogland emphasizes that the food bank works patiently with people to help them obtain the necessary documents. "Sometimes people come with two bags of papers to us. We take the time to help them - an intake conversation can take up to an hour. And if one paper is missing, we will definitely not show them the door." A similar level of flexibility can be observed at Bos and Lommer. Seven reveals that people who are in immediate need might be helped for a period up to two months without being registered in the system. However, the intake procedure does indeed serve a purpose. Seven states, "We have set this standard to prevent people taking advantage of the system." More importantly, accessibility guidelines are in place to ensure that individuals are being helped that need it most, and also to guarantee to the bank’s financial supporters that it is assisting its target group.

Aside from these institutional requirements, a variety of other obstacles may discourage someone from approaching a food bank. Among these is the issue of shame. In the early days of Bos and Lommer, food was distributed via churches and mosques. Seven explains that people were reluctant to collect the packages since they didn't want other community members to see them receiving aid. Moreover, the food bank did not allow us to speak with families receiving such aid. While this was mainly to protect their privacy in general, Seven and Hoogland also indicated that many people specifically do not wish to be identified as someone who benefits from a food bank, due to the shame involved.

In any case, Seven declares that language problems do not play a role. "We have people that speak Arab, English, Hindustan, we have everything. Bos and Lommer is multicultural - and so are we." Seven, who himself came to the Netherlands from Turkey in 1982, is clearly proud of the diverse nature of "his" food bank. There is also a respect for dietary needs. Halal food packages are compiled to meet the food preferences of Muslim clients - a sensitive issue, he says. Seven. In practice, this means that those packages do not contain any pork or products with alcohol.

Seven is keen on lifting all possible barriers that may prevent people from approaching the Bos and Lommer food bank. "We really don't want barriers here. When people come, they will be helped immediately and can ask whatever they want. I would be grateful to hear of any hurdles that might still be in place."

Food banks take in individuals who find themselves caught between need and government assistance. However, they cannot assist all individuals who find themselves in this limbo. According to Hoogland, the food bank does not assist homeless people or drug addicts because organizations already exist to help these specific groups of people. There is yet another group for which access is much more ambiguous. Undocumented migrants, specifically individuals who have had their asylum denied, cannot officially benefit from the food bank. However, this is where the independence and flexibility which characterizes the bank's community-based roots come in handy. At Bos and Lommer, undocumented migrants are indeed provided with food. Isa Seven states: "What matters to me, is what someone's stomach says. It is not my job to distinguish between people that have the right papers and people that don't, my job is to feed the hungry." Hoogland also states that the central food bank would consider feeding undocumented people on a case-by-case basis. Such discretion may indeed be a luxury that these banks will be forced to abandon as the level of need continues to increase, and the government’s own criteria for financial support becomes more stringent.

Multiple functions of the food bank

Key to the food bank’s role as a portal to other institutions is its accessibility. At their intake, clients are often redirected to a range of institutions whose functions vary from aiding female victims of domestic violence, to employment offices. At Bos and Lommer, people are frequently directed to the Bos and Lommer Service Center, a municipal center hosting a variety of social services. According to Seven, directing clients to debt relief services is common practice. Hoogland confirms that more than 80% of the food bank’s clients have large debts. This supports previous investigations that showed 83% of food bank customers to make use of debt relief services. According to Hoogland, however, some people have no contact with these institutions at all. "Some people are really isolated. In Dutch society, it is very hard to understand to which institution to go. It is like a jungle." The food bank, then, aims to bridge the gap between this isolated group and existing institutions for social welfare, helping people to "get back in the system". At the same time, the institutions know where to find the food bank, and when to direct people there.

The food bank has organized several other initiatives to help lead people out of poverty. The course Op eigen kracht (By own power) aims to empower clients by teaching them, over twelve sessions, to manage their budget in order to stay clear of debt. Recently, this course was successfully piloted in every neighborhood where there is a food bank located, with a generally positive reception. Another example of such an initiative is the buddy project Vonk. In close cooperation with de Regenboog Groep, another organization providing “buddy care” for people living at the margins of society, a volunteer is matched with a food bank client. One day per week, the volunteer provides the client with practical and social assistance. According to Hoogland, such projects are now seen by the government as meaningful complements to the bureaucratic procedures already in place to help people.

All of these initiatives are part of the project Meer dan voedsel alleen (More than just food). This project, set up in close cooperation with the municipality of Amsterdam, is part of a broader strategy to combat poverty whereby the food bank’s gateway function is actively promoted by the city. In 2007, the city and Food Bank Amsterdam signed a declaration of intent in which they state that the food bank will do what it can to bring clients into contact with the regular aid services.

Thus, in contrast to the early criticisms vented by politicians, today the municipality of Amsterdam actively embraces the food bank as yet another arena in which to fight the battle against poverty. The city uses it as a way of reconnecting to a group with which it has lost touch. The close relationship between the food bank and city district council is also reflected in the fact that the municipality provides most of the former’s funding.

Except for the three paid employees at headquarters, food banks in Amsterdam are completely run by volunteers who mostly live in the same neighborhoods that the banks are located, thus contributing to social cohesion. At the central hangar, around 20 volunteer jobs are provided to people who are on probation, ex-drug-addicts, etc. who are trying to reintegrate back into society. This provides them the opportunity to develop work-related rhythms and participate once again in society.

The cooperation that is required for the successful maintenance of a food bank helps to forge a community that represents a powerful first step in the fight against poverty. The Bos and Lommer branch is an excellent example of such a community. It lacks the bureaucratic feel of some larger aid institutions, which manage to dehumanize personal suffering within minutes. Instead, its inviting atmosphere softens some of the edges of the stark realities that have brought people together in this small space.

Another key factor in the successes of the Op eigen kracht course and buddy project, according to participants, has been the social function that they serve. The opportunity to share stories and the sense that one is not the only one with certain problems are highly valued. Given that many clients are prone to social isolation, the importance of these and other initiatives employed by the food bank should not be underestimated. Also worth mentioning in this respect are the Christmas and Ramadan dinners organized yearly for all clients.

During the actual distribution of food, poverty is given a real face. Merely by virtue of their existence, food banks increase the visibility of poverty in the Netherlands. The contact that employees have with clients in the course of their work provides insight as to why people come there in the first place. In this sense, identifying some of the reasons for existing poverty is another important function of the food bank.

Food bank under pressure

The consequences of the economic crisis have been severe. As Seven explains, a rising number of people have appealed for aid. Specifically, he has witnessed an increase in the number of young people: "Many young people that have lost their jobs come to us. Those people have applied for welfare, but it takes 6 weeks to 6 months before they are paid out, if the welfare is granted. Time, in which people have no income." Hoogland is more careful when it comes to drawing conclusions about the effect of the economic crisis on the number of clients. "Someone has to be in serious trouble before coming to the food bank. If someone comes into budget problems after losing his or her job, this usually takes time." Nevertheless, the bank witnessed a surge in its number of clients at the onset of the economic crisis in December, 2008. It is possible, however, that the media attention generated by the support of the popular Froger family, and the relaxing of criteria for access, contributed to this increase as well.

The knife cuts both ways: since companies and suppliers aim to use their resources more efficiently, supply has decreased dramatically. In addition, brokers are purchasing foodstuffs more prudently. "Suppliers don't want to buy anything, and if they don't buy anything, there are no left-overs. Everything is coupled. For the past month, we have hardly had any food." Seven says. To some extent, the food bank's own stockpiles can provide some relief; packages can be filled from these reserves even if supply is limited. Still, this is obviously only a temporary solution. At the central hangar, the shortage in supply has led to there being very basic food packages over the last few months. Fortunately, new initiatives for obtaining food have emerged.

Recently, Food Bank Amsterdam has had several very successful food drives at supermarkets throughout the city, which consist of their simply asking people to buy one additional item that can then be donated to the food bank. This request is not seen as too much to ask, so most people contribute, with substantial results: enough was collected to feed Amsterdam’s needy for three weeks, or to place one extra item in every package for about two months. In addition, a food swap has been organized for June 26, with the purpose of gathering additional food in exchange for non-food items that were bank got donated.to the food bank. This addresses the problem of what to do with these items in a creative way that is not wasteful, and is not dependent upon the government’s decision of whom to help and how. Although a food swap in itself may not be a viable long-term solution to the economic crisis, the community that is created during the process is the same community that can also come together to demand changes to laws and policies which exclude, discriminate against, and exploit certain people.

Future of the food bank

Large organizations operating during times of need are under incredible pressure, easily leading to a situation in which an organization must compromise its original mission. Hille Hoogland explained how the municipality, which provides the bulk of the food bank’s funding, is currently imposing budget cuts. In its place, Hoogland hopes to obtain additional funds from private funders. However, to be attractive to funders, the food bank must prove its accountability and efficiency by becoming increasingly explicit about whom they are helping and how they are helping them. This results-based criteria for obtaining and maintaining funding makes it more difficult to accommodate the unpredictability of need. In addition, as Food Bank Amsterdam expands and becomes more professional, it risks also becoming more bureaucratic and formal—and therefore, less accessible. It goes without saying that this would be detrimental to its functioning; as we have argued, accessibility has always been one of the program’s greatest strengths.

Food Bank Amsterdam wants to continue serving the individuals who need it most, and seeks to prevent food waste. However, it cannot control the fact that there is an economic crisis, and the rising poverty levels that result from this crisis should not be a reason to conclude that these banks are failing to provide necessary assistance. However, increasing poverty and diminishing resources does mean that they may need to make difficult decisions about whom they can and cannot help. In order to remain loyal to its mission, the organization must continue to involve community members, and be allowed the flexibility to make humane decisions when the need arises. Food banks will continue to operate within the gap between humanity and bureaucracy, but in the meantime, government must also be able to address the causes of poverty and those problems that they are not equipped to solve.

Although the government together with organizations like Food Bank Amsterdam seek to eradicate poverty in society, they have not been able to help everyone who needs it. There are still people who fall through the cracks in their quest for help, deemed ineligible to receive assistance. In the case of food aid in Amsterdam, the government should financially support the initiatives of community members who are working to help people in their own neighborhood, and should continue to work on initiatives of its own that will lessen the existing inequalities. Poverty makes true integration between different social groups difficult to achieve. Therefore, the best way to assist and empower the greatest number of people is to have a multitude of dedicated individuals like the ones described above, at all levels of society, simultaneously working to fight poverty in their own unique ways.


We gratefully acknowledge the helpful support of Hille Hoogland, Isa Seven and other employees of Food Bank Amsterdam. This report was written as part of the Humanity in Action summer program 2010 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.



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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2010


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