Food Banks: a necessity, or is there an alternative?

Increase in the number of beneficiaries, the quantities of food distributed and the solidarity
Food Banks in Belgium played an important role during the first wave of the coronavirus crisis. The number of people requesting food aid in the first few months has reached unprecedented levels. The number of adults and children rose from around 170,000 in February to almost 195,000 in May, an increase of almost 15%.

This influx obviously caused a huge spike in food distribution. From March to June 2020, 55.4% more food was distributed compared to the same period last year. The work of the Food Banks in Belgium has been severely tested but thanks to the great wave of solidarity and the spontaneous mobilization of many temporary volunteers, the distribution of food has been ensured on a large scale.

Additional financial support has also been received from banking institutions, businesses, organizations, government and individuals. This has allowed Food Banks to exceptionally buy food to fill existing gaps. In addition, food companies and retailers made additional food donations. Without this essential support, the Food Banks would not have been able to overcome the period of lockdown and continue to serve the local affiliated charities.

The Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived still crucial
In the context of the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD), it is important to stress that large deliveries of quality food products have helped Food Banks get through this period. The Food Banks are eagerly awaiting the exact terms of the agreement recently reached on the 2021-2027 budget of the European Union and on the recovery plan Next Generation EU, which together represent some 1,800 billion euros.

Significant changes are in any case expected since the food aid program will now come under the new version of the European Social Fund (ESF +). In addition, each Member State will have to decide not only on the budget that will be reserved for food aid but also on how this budget will be spent.

Given the undeniable need for FEAD in the supply of Food Banks, we wish to explicitly call on the Belgian authorities and political decision-makers to take their responsibilities and maintain the total budget for the period 2021-2027 of European, federal and regional funds at least at the same level as for the period 2014-2020”, says Jef Mottar, Managing Director of the Belgian Federation of Food Banks. “We also advocate that the available budget relating to the FEAD is exclusively used for structural food supply and that no budget of this fund is reserved for the purchase of food coupons or vouchers.

Piet Vanthemsche, President of the Belgian Federation of Food Banks, explains: “Today, food vouchers are sometimes used as a temporary solution. However, this system raises questions about the efficient use of available financial resources. It also does not allow local associations to provide social support. Moreover, granting food checks to disadvantaged people is not a structural solution to the problem of poverty either. We continue to patronize them by giving them yet another food check. If we really want to get things done, then it makes more sense to introduce a measure aimed at raising the minimum standard of living.

Can’t food vouchers replace the free distribution of food?
During the health crisis, public and political authorities stepped up their efforts to cope with the influx of demands for food aid. A system of food vouchers has sometimes been chosen, whereby vouchers are made available to people in need. The argument is that it is a more respectful way of treating people in precarious situations. According to supporters of this system, food checks allow them to buy whatever they want and in complete anonymity.


Piet Vanthemsche, President of the Belgian Federation of Food Banks, adds: “Of course we fully understand these arguments and we have examined them closely in recent years. In many local associations, food distribution is currently done according to a store formula where beneficiaries can choose from a range of products on offer”.

But Food Banks have a number of reservations about the introduction of food vouchers:

–          With food vouchers, people living in poverty have to buy their food in supermarkets or stores at consumer prices. This means that for the same budget, they receive much less (healthy) food than what the Food Banks can provide for free.

–          In addition, the food voucher system entails high costs. In addition to the value of the vouchers themselves, the costs of administration and administrative follow-up are also considerable (for example, if an amount of social meal vouchers is credited to a payment card). Food Banks work with free food donations and their operating costs are minimal, 0.166 € / kg to be precise. These low costs can be explained by the fact that Food Banks work almost exclusively with volunteers.

–          Checks play no role in the fight against food waste. However, this is the second mission of Food Banks; just as important as the fight against hunger. In 2019, legally compliant quality food surpluses from the distribution and food industry accounted for no less than 61% of the total number of products. As a result, no less than 11,000 tons of food waste have been avoided.

Food aid as a springboard for greater social support
The vast majority of charities affiliated with Food Banks provide not only free food aid, but also social support measures. Almost all associations have a meeting place which promotes social contact and prevents social isolation. In addition, many associations also offer a series of other services, such as help with budget management, social security, medical care, childcare for single mothers, psychosocial support, etc.

Practice shows that the free provision of food is an important incentive for people in need who have to turn to local associations or to a local organization. In this way, they can also call on other social services. For this reason, the Food Banks intend to continue in the years to come their efforts to improve cooperation with local authorities and organizations working in the field of poverty reduction.