On the breadline: inflation overwhelms Europe’s food banks

With no job and speaking little of the language, Olena Vinykova has relied on her local food bank to cope with the “very hard” situation she found herself in since fleeing Ukraine for Germany seven months ago. If she had arrived any later, her situation could have been even worse.

Surging food and fuel prices mean millions more people in Germany are struggling to make ends meet, forcing many food banks to shut their doors to thousands of new applicants. That includes the one used by Vinykova in Friedberg, about 15 miles north of Frankfurt.

The former nurse, who left her husband and grown-up children in Bakhmut, now on the front line of Ukraine’s war with Russia, asked the Financial Times to “say thank you” to the volunteers for their “amazing” work.

Across Europe food bank use is soaring as the highest inflation for a generation hits the region’s poorest, who spend a greater proportion of their income on energy and food, the hardest.

Charities from Spain to Latvia report 20 to 30 per cent higher demand than last year and expect a further increase this winter. In Bulgaria, one of the poorest countries in the EU, there was a three-quarters jump between September and October in people using the national food bank, according to the country’s food bank director Tzanka Milanova. “Inflation is gnawing away at people’s finances,” said Milanova. “More people end up below the poverty line.” Government bodies have exhausted their budgets for food aid, forcing Bulgarian charities to turn to food banks.

Over a third of Germany’s 962 food banks — called Tafel — have stopped taking new applicants beyond the 2mn they already help. This is the first time many have taken such a drastic step, after which demand rose more than 50 per cent this year for access to the fruit, vegetables, bread and other essentials they collect from shops and donors.

“We could double the number of customers if we took everyone who asked,” said Peter Radl, chair of the Friedberg food bank, which provides a basket of supplies every two weeks to 700 families, of which about 130 come from Ukraine. “But space is limited, we have a total of 120 baskets, and there is only so much our volunteers can do,” he added.

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“It is surprising for a rich country like Germany to have so many people who cannot afford to feed themselves properly,” said Katja Bernhard, a board member of the food bank association for the Hesse region.

Yet soaring energy prices, triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have pushed over a quarter of the German population into “fuel poverty” — defined as spending more than 10 per cent of income on energy — up from 14.5 per cent last year, according to the country’s council of economic experts.

More than a fifth of the EU population was already unable to heat their home sufficiently last year, before the latest price surge, according to the latest data from Eurostat, the EU statistics agency.

In November, eurozone price growth slowed for the first time in 17 months, dipping from 10.6 per cent to 10 per cent. But this was little consolation for people struggling to make ends meet, especially when average wages have risen only 4 per cent in the past year.

Peter Radl, chair of the Friedberg food bank
Peter Radl, chair of the Friedberg food bank: ‘We could double the number of customers if we took everyone who asked’ © Martin Arnold/FT

Energy prices across the single currency area are still almost 35 per cent higher than a year ago, while food, alcohol and tobacco cost more than 13 per cent extra, according to Eurostat.

The price of some essentials has risen even faster. In the wider EU, milk prices have soared 43 per cent in the past year, while pork costs 55 per cent more and Japonica rice 68 per cent more.

In central and eastern Europe, the cost of staples has increased even more sharply. In Hungary, bread prices have risen by 80 per cent over the past year. There, the national food bank works via a network of charitable groups, which has expanded by almost a quarter to 530 this year. Its spokesman András Nagygyörgy estimates it helps 221,000 people, adding: “Since the start of the inflationary spiral, we have been witnessing an inflow of organizations.”

Giovanni Bruno, president of the Italian food bank foundation, estimated an additional 85,000 people had sought their help this year. “Many people who ask for food are now young, even students trying to save money to pay electricity or heating bills,” he said.

Inflation has also led to a fall in the amount of food and money donated in several EU countries in recent months. Volunteers and directors in food banks across Europe say supermarkets have become more aggressive in discounting food nearing its sell-by date, leaving less for food banks to collect.

Oscarine Vonk, a volunteer at the Amsterdam food bank network, said it had benefited from a campaign appealing for wealthier people to donate the €190 the government is giving to all Dutch households to help with high energy bills in November and December. “We are really struggling to collect enough food, but we can use this money to buy more if needed,” she said.

Dutch food banks responding to the surge in inflation by increasing the limit on disposable income people can have to qualify as members to €300 per month and Vonk said they expected a 20 per cent increase in demand this winter.

“Groceries and electricity are much more expensive,” said Adnan Ibrahim, who has been going with his wife to a food bank in southern Amsterdam for three years. “I have health problems — my wife too. I cannot work and we don’t have enough money to pay the bills.”