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Getting poverty off the streets: Should Finland replace bread queues with sit-down meals?

Helsinki region officials are looking to a sit-down meal trial as a possible model for providing food aid, eliminating the need for long bread queues.

kolme miestä ruokapöydässä
Hannu Väkinen joins his friends for a sit-down meal in Vantaa. Image: Pasi Peiponen / Yle
Denise Wall

City leaders in the capital region are considering a new approach to providing food aid to residents in need. Instead of the familiar bread queues that often snake through the streets for hundreds of metres, officials and NGOs are considering offering a seated meal where participants also provide some sort of service in return.

If adopted, the planned change would take effect in stages from the beginning of 2019.

“We want to get rid of food queues. It will still be possible to receive food aid,” said Leena Luhtasela, director of social work for young people and adults in the municipality of Helsinki.

According to Leena, offering meals in alternative locations would help rid the public landscape of lengthy lines.

“Some kind of service centre or a residential space. Parishes also have their own dining halls,” she suggested, adding that there are also several shared spaces available for such activities.

Different organisations that provide nutritional aid in the city recently gathered to discuss the future of the charitable activity. Helsinki’s Deaconess Institute said that it supports the move to reform food aid.

City funding in the balance

As a major financial backer of charitable organisations, the city of Helsinki has some leverage in pushing to reform the current system.

This year, it provided some 100,000 euros to the Veikko and Lahja Hursti charitable association while the Myllypuro food distribution centre in eastern Helsinki received 180,000 euros.

Both NGOs have lengthy queues that often spill over outside of the distribution centre and extend through the streets. Helsinki will make a decision about its requirements for funding the aid programmes next year.

“The [question of which] organisations receive help is a political decision. Hopefully these bodies are not entirely dependent on the city,” Luhtasela said.

NGOs and city officials are also negotiating with several food waste restaurants with a view to providing free meals to people in need.

“They are interested in new approaches based on sustainable development,” the city official added.

The Hursti foundation lists a number of sponsors (content in Finnish) of its charitable programme, but in the case of eastern Helsinki’s Myllypuro food distribution centre, the city of Helsinki is the only benefactor.

“This is a matter of life and death for us. We may have to shut the doors in Myllypuro,” said project leader Sinikka Backman.

“You can’t just eliminate poverty in Helsinki by making the [food aid] queues invisible,” she charged.

Heikki Hursti, who heads up the Hursti foundation, did not participate in the workshop for NGOs. Iltalehti reported that he walked out of the sessions, claiming that the end results had been decided ahead of time.

Activation model for food aid?

Meanwhile, NGOs from Espoo are said to be considering introducing more conditionality into their food aid programmes. Charitable organisations have proposed providing food parcels for recipients who agree to join others for a communal meal or who agree to participate in a cooking course.

Espoo city council's head of social security Juha Metso told Yle that officials have discussed the new approach.

“This was initially agreed, but not fully outlined in any way,” Metso commented.

Hannu Hätönen, head of Espoo’s Good Ark NGO, said he was horrified by the proposal.

“Performing some obligation to get a bag of food? It won’t do,” Hätönen countered. “The majority of our customers would remain without food. They are hungry,” he declared.

Hätönen said that he is concerned about the trend toward communality in the midst of a very complex problem.

“For example, people grappling with mental health problems might ponder for three days whether or not they can be bothered to get out the front door, scurry to us to get food and then rush back home,” he explained.

“Sometimes it seems that we are overrun by poverty theoreticians. Poverty seems like a simple problem that can be easily resolved,” he added.

The philanthropist said that bread queues should remain on the city streets as a reminder that not everyone is doing well.

Vantaa making changes to food aid programmes

Over the past few years, NGOs, schools, parish groups and city officials in Vantaa have been running a pilot based on a model borrowed from Berlin in Germany.

The city has a network of 65 locations that contribute waste food to a central warehouse where the edibles are stored for onward distribution by aid organisations. The operation is backed by the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra as well as hundreds of cooperation partners including grocery stores, wholesalers and other players in the food industry.

“We want to set down ground rules. We want to make [getting] food aid participatory,” said Laura Tuomi, who works with the “Common Table” project.

“We want to create jobs and develop career paths, that’s why this is a good thing,” she told Yle.

Vantaa currently has 20 locations that offer sit-down meals for residents in need. For example, the Hämeenkylä parish accommodates some 170 diners at the same time. Parish priest Matti Hyry said that the project brings together different people to sit around the same table.

“A dining connection is the deepest bond that people can experience,” Hyry noted.

One participant, Hannu Väkinen, said that the experience offers him more than just a meal.

“The word of God and one meal a week with friends,” he volunteered.

Sit-down meal still a train fare away

Further afield in Vantaa’s Martinlaakso district food aid organisers continue to parcel out groceries in an open-air setting. The commodities come from Vantaa’s waste food terminal.

“It would be great if we could get our 130 food parcel recipients to have a meal together!” said Eila Nurmi, who runs the local NGO.

Veikko Järvinen and Irma Wellström, a couple who came to get the much-needed food packages said that they wouldn’t participate in the communal meals. The nearest one is in Myyrmäki, and they could spend the three-euro train fare on other things.

“We don’t have a crumb of food in our cupboards. We’d rather come here than steal from the shops,” Wellström quipped.

The couple struggle to make ends meet as it is.

“I’ve gone without medicine because we can’t afford it,” Järvinen revealed. They slowly crossed the nearby train track and made their way home.

“Greetings to the government from us!” Wellström said in parting.

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