The queue outside is longer than I imagined. They wait patiently; all with two empty shopping bags. Then, at exactly one o’clock pm, the doors open. Inside the visitors read on a screen the basic rules, but also recipes on how to produce a tasty meal with cassava.
One by one they open their bags and start filling them with meat, vegetables, fruit, and canned food. Everything goes smoothly and within a few minutes, they are back outside on the streets of Spijkenisse. “See you next week!” Welcome behind the scenes of the Dutch Food Banks.
It all started back in 2002 when a Dutch couple couldn’t stand to see the poverty around them any longer. Out of their living room, they started to supply some 30 families with food. The success was a painful experience for Dutch politicians, who claim that their country is one of the wealthiest in the world and that nobody should live in poverty or hunger. Now, some 15 years later, the Food Bank has over 132.000 customers who receive over 40.000 food crates per week. Each year 40.000.000 products, with a net worth of € 60.000.000, find their way to people in need.
Behind this impressive number is an organization that only works with volunteers. All around the country 11.000 volunteers work at 168 local Food Banks. Some 130 volunteers work at the distribution center in Rotterdam. This center delivers to 26 Food Banks in the region. Yes, these are impressive facts and figures and we all know that these Banks exist. However, it is far more than ‘just’ filling a bag with food products on a Friday afternoon.
It’s early Thursday morning in Rotterdam. Days of preparations come to an end. The time has come to fill the food crates. Everyone takes in his or her position; like a Formula 1 team. “OK, let’s roll”, shouts a man at 9 o’clock sharp. The conveyor belt starts rolling with an endless stream of crates. Each volunteer has a specific task. Within minutes a crate is filled.
A man in his fifties dressed to survive a fierce winter at the North Pole smiles at Anat and wipes the sweat from his face. “I really love it here. I’m doing it for years now and it always feels like a party. A few days a week I work here and on the other days, I assist the elderly. After years of writing application letters this work makes me feel useful again. Yes, I am a happy person”, he says while the sweat pours into his eyes.
In the meantime forklift drivers race around to transport the food to the trucks waiting outside. Driver Henk looks like he is the king of the road. “I think I have the best part of the work here: racing around. I have my own little world. They leave me alone to do my thing. If they do not I am gone. Cheerio and goodbye”.
Supervisor John walks around quietly. He knows every volunteer by name. They clearly respect him. Later he tells us a bit more about why he is a supervisor here. “Years ago I had a couple of very flourishing businesses. The sky was the limit. Then the financial crisis came and this hit me really hard. I went bankrupt. After that my wife left me. In the end, I was left with empty hands. For many months I had to sleep rough, under bridges, and so on.” His eyes show that this memory is very fresh. “I asked for help. Time and again the answer was: sorry, but we can’t. I really thought that in this country they will only support you when you are a violent drug addict. Then I came in contact with the Food Bank. Now my life is getting back on the rails. You can imagine how grateful I am”. Even though he looks at us, I am sure he sees fragments of his tormented past.
While the team in this warehouse fills the hundreds of crates, the first trucks are on their way to the regional Food Banks. One truck is off to the Food Bank of Spijkenisse, south of Rotterdam. Around 10 o’clock the truck arrives.
The Food Bank in Spijkenisse is smaller in size. It provides all the surrounding towns and villages with food. Inside things are in ready for the filling of the food crates. Spijkenisse does the filling itself. Slowly the 25 volunteers arrive. It seems like everyone knows each other for many years. At 1 o’clock pm the noise of the conveyor belt fills the hall. That’s the perfect time for that single question: Is there anybody who does not want to be photographed? Nobody has a problem, so that makes our work easier.
An elderly lady steals the show. Her smile is contagious and she chats for many hours. Elisabeth is 90 years old. “According to the national organization I am in the oldest volunteer in the country! Anyway, I hope to keep on doing this for many years. I really felt sad when I had to stay at home after an injury. Yes, I truly missed them”. And, then with her deep brown eyes: “It keeps my mind alive and clean.”
At the end of the afternoon, 300 crates are filled and stored for the next day. Here in Spijkenisse customers receive two crates. The other one is filled with fresh food like fruit, dairy, and vegetables. Sometimes more exotic items end up in a crate. This Friday cassava is such an item. “Our customers tend to be quite conservative in a culinary context”, says Arco, who he is the overall manager. “On an information screen, we show them recipes. Hopefully, they can do something with this cassava. While they wait in line they can see it, together with our strict basic rules. No messing around.” Food Banks are an example where humanity and professionalism go hand in hand.