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Centralised waste food depot to streamline food aid in Helsinki

The aim is to ease the logistics related to collecting and distributing unused food to the people who need it the most.

Reino Mäkelä ja Marjatta Välimäki syövät lounasta Matteuksen kirkon Waste&Feast - hävikkiruokaravintolassa
Reino Mäkelä and Marjatta Välimäki are regular customers who dine on affordable meals provided by Matteus Church's Snellu Cafe. Image: Antti Kolppo / Yle

The city of Helsinki plans to set up a centralised terminal for the collection of waste food for onward distribution. The depot is part of a food aid development project to simplify getting unused food to people in need of assistance.

"An essential part of the change is centralising the logistics into one terminal, from which food will then be sent onwards to other distribution points. In other words, food aid providers will no longer have to get waste food from stores," said development project manager Anni Heinälä.

Currently, churches, community associations and other non-profits provide lunches costing one or two euros or even for free. Last autumn churches provided as many as 45 open meal services in different parts of the city. The central depot will make it easier for organisations to gather ingredients for meals.

Proposed location not yet fixed

The Helsinki city council has earmarked 600,000 euros for the establishment of the food depot. According to Heinälä, officials are currently working to find a suitable location for the facility.

Another major change in how food aid will work in the city involves boosting the number of social workers for food aid operations and improving the system of food distribution. The aim is to provide more active assistance to recipients of food aid.

"These food aid distribution points could be platforms for providing a more diverse range of services and advice than is currently offered," said community deacon Jukka-Pekka Vaittinen, who represents Helsinki churches in the project.

In practice Vaittinen said, this could mean that at the beginning of a meal, organisers could inform customers that a social worker, health centre personnel or financial adviser is also present to offer assistance.

Food parcels still available

Last autumn, Heinälä was coordinator of neighbouring Vantaa’s "Shared table" project, which provided a sit-down meal to food aid recipients. The model has now spread to different parts of the country.

The system has also come under critical scrutiny as some people have concluded that the sit-down meal means that food parcels would no longer be distributed and that the dining experience will be the only form of food aid available. However, that is not the case Heinälä noted.

"The model is not just about a shared meal, as is often believed, but Vantaa will also continue to hand out food parcels as it did before. It’s also Helsinki’s intention to specifically support the existing model and to provide food parcels as before," she added.

Food aid recipients do not have to register for help but are able to receive it anonymously. Heinälä stressed that the changes will likely not affect the numbers queuing for assistance.

"The project itself will not have a direct effect here but in Vantaa for example, the number of people queuing for food has increased as a result," Heinälä commented.

The project manager said that officials are also considering the idea of making food parcel deliveries straight to recipients’ homes, if they cannot go to distribution points for some reason.

Promoting individual wellbeing

She noted that the ultimate aim of the project is to reduce poverty and to enhance individual wellbeing and the ability to participate in society. She added that improving the current system will ensure that these goals are met.

"The food waste depot will make distribution more rational and efficient. We will be able to get food directly from wholesalers and supermarkets for the centre, and can also collect larger amounts," she explained.

Once food is gathered at the depot, it will be distributed to food aid organisations, which will no longer have to go directly to different stores to collect food. According to Heinälä this approach will also reduce costs and emissions.

She noted that the city also wants to change the way that food parcels are currently distributed.

"The aim is not to stop anything, not even food queues. But maybe it can be done indoors, perhaps using a numerical system so that people can perhaps have a cup of coffee and chat with others rather than waiting in the cold," she suggested.

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