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Food Banks, social grocery stores, supportive restaurants: how the coronavirus weakens aid for the poor


"For those in need, coronavirus is a double penalty" says Samuel Haquin, coordinator of a social center that has been active for 45 years in Molenbeek, Brussels. All the activities of its non-profit organization Snijboontje-La Porte Verte are affected. "Each one is affected according to its activity. No more literacy classes, no more homework school, hotlines of social services only by phone, the food parcel center is maintained but the social restaurant, aligned with HoReCa rules, is closed."

The solution ? Setting up a take-away meal distribution system, where people can come twice a week and receive three different menus "to avoid having to come every day and take unnecessary risks," says Samuel. "The people who come are quite old and vulnerable, so it’s a population at risk from coronavirus."

On the other hand, the service is maintained as best it can, but food aid has decreased by 30%. "People have made provisions and they are afraid to go out. They live on their reserves. But my hypothesis is that in a week or two, they will have no more stocks and will come back to get parcels and meal trays", explains Samuel Haquin.

One question remains in these times when the retail and agrifood sectors are under great pressure: are there enough raw materials? For now yes. "I mean, for now. 80% of what we receive comes from the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived. That continues. Yesterday, we still received two tonnes of flour, for example. And then, we are well served in fruit and vegetables, certain markets being prohibited, we receive quantities from certain producers. But we know that it is temporary", warns our interlocutor.

A logistical challenge…
For others, it is more complicated. The Red Cross has around 40 grocery stores throughout the territory of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, convenience stores for disadvantaged people sent by the CPAS (Centre Public d’Action Sociale) or other social organizations. These brands offer products bought by the Red Cross itself and resold at 50%, and offer unsold products from large retailers. "The problem is precisely that we are receiving fewer and fewer unsold from the supermarkets," said Nancy Ferroni, spokesperson for the Red Cross. "Our purchasing center, Soli-Food, is still running normally, thankfully. But that means our costs are going up."

The first to suffer from this drop in unsold sales are the Food Banks. Ordinarily, the surpluses of large retailers represent 30% of donations. "But everyone has been able to observe these panic purchases from certain consumers" notes Jeff Mottar, Managing Director of the Belgian Federation of Food Banks. "However, you should know that this has a direct impact on our supplies. At the moment, it is extremely difficult to find milk, for example."

No one knows how demand will evolve, and Jef Mottar is concerned. "Stocks in supermarkets is one thing. But we also hope that the food industry - 28% of the donations we receive anyway - will be able to hold on, continue to produce and keep up with demand. Because the sector also has a high rate of absenteeism."

… But above all sanitary
Associations have to face the health crisis directly. At the Porte Verte-Snijboontje in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, three out of the forty social workers are absent, a fourth has withdrawn preventively as he has chronic respiratory problems. At the Red Cross, all volunteers over the age of 65 have been asked to stop their activities because, according to Nancy Ferroni, "it is putting them in danger." Consequence: one of the three Brussels grocery stores, the one of Schaerbeek, had to close. "A blow," admits the spokesperson who specifies that all the families helped by this local organization were all contacted by phone. Another grocery store will take care of delivering them.

It’s also a huge problem at Food Banks. Fewer active volunteers - they are often over 65 - that is less activity, so that the nine establishments in the country are running at 80% of their capacity. "We made a call for new volunteers to come and help us and I must say that it is a success, we received many phone calls," said Jef Mottar.

Providing protective equipment is a priority everywhere. And not always easy to stick to it. "There are emergencies for all of our field volunteers," says Nancy Ferroni. "They too need masks, disinfectant gels. All of this is becoming scarce, it is very complicated to maintain our activities. How do we maintain safety distances when there are four volunteers at the same time in a room dedicated to the preparation of packages?"

Elsewhere, it is the resourcefulness. In Samuel Haquin's non-profit organization, a volunteer made masks herself to distribute to staff, who now work on a rotating basis "so that the same people are not constantly exposed to physical contact."

New solidarities
This health crisis is a real challenge for the sector active in helping the poor. And, for Samuel Haquin, this strengthens the solidarity between all these associations. "Some of them, who came to the aid of the homeless, were forced to stop their activities. We must deal with them now, even if it is not our usual audience. This is also the case for workers in the sex, who no longer have any income. This solidarity already existed, but it takes on its full meaning now."

Another example: "Yesterday, I bought - and it was not an easy task – 5,000 food trays for take-away meals, and obviously not just for us. It was very difficult because this kind of business is supposed to be closed since it's not a food store… But I managed to convince one, I won't mention it but I thank it, for opening up. I was able to buy all the boxes and we are going to distribute them among all the associations. If we have to see a positive aspect to this whole crisis, it is this interesting dynamic… " says Samuel.

Others wonder: "We can no longer collect directly from department stores with our volunteers," said Jef Mottar of the Belgian Federation of Food Banks. "So where do we go to get our supplies? I'm counting on donations from big companies." And the government? This morning, he released € 286,000 for the sector, or 150 tonnes of food. "Enough for a few days," coldly analyzes Mr. Mottar. "To give you an idea, we distribute each year 18,000 tonnes of food to the poor," he sighs. "But any help is welcome ..."

Source: www.rtbf.be

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