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Hike benefits to tackle lengthening food queues, academic warns

Politicians could see food queues as a new form of aid and for that reason may neglect to raise the level of basic social assistance, researcher says.

Leipäjono Myllypurossa.
People queue for food in Myllypuro, eastern Helsinki at Christmas. Image: Mikko Ahmajärvi/Yle

A Tampere University researcher says Finland's growing network of food aid assistance may be numbing politicians to the problem of chronic poverty in Finland. According to welfare researcher Tuomo Laihiala, it would be better to raise the level of social benefits so people can get by, rather than to see food queues grow longer.

"Poverty has persisted and even become chronic among certain groups. Something absolutely needs to be done about this development," Laihiala told Yle, adding that it is odd that for decades nothing has been done to address the root causes of food queues.

Meanwhile for the first time this Christmas, the organisers of a food aid centre in eastern Helsinki’s Myllypuro district distributed food packages to people in need. Had they not, people reliant on the aid packages for meals would have gone several days without the vital form of assistance.

"Our customers were very worried. We decided to organise a distribution drive one way or another," said Sinikka Backman, who coordinates the aid packages.

Backman estimated that some 1,200 people came to pick up food packages on Christmas Eve during the three-hour distribution window.

Record numbers in need

Grassroots organisations providing food assistance all say that more people seem to be in need of the supplemental food supplies.

Since spring, the Myllypuro food kitchen has been distributing food five days a week instead of the customary three days.

This year, an estimated 265,000 came to get free foodstuff, an increase of more than 100,000 on 2017, organisers said.

Meanwhile, the city of Vantaa has been the setting for a "common table" operation in which food aid centres have been consolidated into a central station for handling food aid distribution. This model collects unused food from grocery stores, stores it at a main station and then passes it on to 65 NGOs to provide assistance for the needy. The aim is to make efficient use of resources by combining the efforts of the city and the Lutheran church.

"The idea is for the public sector to take responsibility for the operation," explained project manager Hanna Kuisma.

In addition to distributing food parcels, the operation also seeks to provide social cohesion by providing sit-down meals, for example. According to Kuisma, the model also makes it easier for volunteer helpers to continue their work.

Other cities in Finland are following Vantaa's example, with places such as Järvenpää, Oulu, Helsinki, Turku and Tampere creating their own adaptations of the operation. Järvenpää in particular has taken the model furthest and has developed a network for providing the seated meals.

Researcher: Increase basic social security

Welfare researcher Laihiala said that over the years food aid has become more acceptable in international discourse and the same is true of Finland. While he said that the Vantaa model deserves support, there are also dangers involved.

"It could become a problem if, for instance, politicians see this as a new form of assistance for the poor which may blind them to the real need to increase the level of basic social security," he declared.

The researcher pointed out that there are hundreds of thousands of people in Finland for whom basic social benefits cannot provide a reasonable minimum standard of living. He noted that the unemployed and pensioners are most likely to seek help from food distribution centres.

"Basic benefits should be significantly increased rather than people having to resort to charitable assistance year after year," he declared.

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