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Researcher: Bread queues have become an institution in Finland

A poverty researcher says that bread queues have become a part of the way of life for some residents of Finland, and that most of those who wait in line for donated food have been doing it for years. The researcher says relatively recent governmental financial support of food charities has made the issue increasingly difficult to address.

Maria Ohisalo.
Finnish poverty researcher Maria Ohisalo. File photo. Image: Derrick Frilund / Yle

Around one thousand people stood in the bread queue in eastern Helsinki's Myllypuro district on Tuesday.

Kari Öhman, a board member of food bank Myllypuron elintarvikeapu (roughly: Myllypuro Food Assistance), says the largest segment of those who rely on food donations are the unemployed and retirees - but says that poverty can affect people of all age groups.

"There's everyone here, from 86-year-old women, to families with small children - even teenagers," Öhman says.

The Myllypuro food bank is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays and this summer has served some 13-14,000 people per month.

That's a sizeable increase compared to the first six months of the year, which saw a total of 8,000 people queuing for food in Myllypuro.

"Usually it's between 900 and 1,000 people per day," he says.

"Overall, the numbers have been largely the same the past few years. The numbers did increase at the beginning of the year when [Finland's basic] support was transferred from municipalities to [the Finnish Social Insurance Institution] Kela," Öhman says.

Chronic poverty difficult to escape

According to a yet-to-be-published study carried out last year, the majority of those who use Helsinki bread queues have been doing so for several years.

Finnish poverty researcher Maria Ohisalo studied Finnish bread queues for her doctoral dissertation. Ohisalo is also vice chair of the Greens and a deputy member of the Helsinki City Council.

"Many pensioners and unemployed stand in the queues. The two largest groups include middle-aged men who've lost their jobs and older retired women with small pensions who've spent their lives caring for their families," Ohisalo says.

Last year, Ohisalo took part in a study researching Helsinki bread queues, carried out by Helsinki University, the University of Eastern Finland and the Diaconia University of Applied Sciences.

Because the study hasn't been published yet, Ohisalo doesn't want to reveal too much about it, but does say the findings have not changed her views of the situation of the capital's bread queues.

"I also studied bread queues in 2012 for my dissertation. When we researched them [again] in 2016 I noticed that pretty much the same people were standing in line," Ohisalo says.

She says that most people in the queues come back every week, with more than 40 percent of them having used food charities for the past three to ten years. Often, she says, people who use bread queues live on their own. The unpublished 2016 report also shows that virtually everyone in the lines rent their homes, rather than own them.

Dispelling myths

Because of her vocation, Ohisalo says she is often asked whether the people who use food service actually really need them.

"You have to stand in line for several hours to get the food; it takes half of a workday. People wouldn't stand there if they didn't have to," Ohisalo says.

"Those who ask [such things] have never seen or been in a bread queue," the researcher says. "We have a large group of people in our society who've never seen hard times or poverty. It's easier to understand people who use these queues if you've had economic difficulties or had to line up yourself. If you have no personal experience, it's easier to judge these people," she says.

Ohisalo says she is not optimistic that the lines will disappear anytime soon.

"[Bread queues] have become a tradition, an institution and those don’t easily go away. And developments in the political world these past years have increased the role bread queues have [in people's lives]. Previously, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health said 'no' to bread queues - in an effort to address poverty through legislation instead, with the motivation of preventing people having to queue in the first place," Ohisalo says.

Finnish bread queue organisations have been able to apply to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health for financial support since 2016, she says.

"When social benefits are cut and money is given to third-party organisations, one can ask whether we actually don't want bread queues," Ohisalo says, adding that if Finland really wants to get rid of the bread queues, it needs to give more social support to those in need.

"One problem with social support is that it doesn't reach the people who need it. Those who end up in poverty are often poor in more ways than one; they [usually] don't have any economic capital, they have weak social capital and are in poor health. We should help these people on all of those levels. It is important that they get comprehensive assistance, so that they don't have to go to every [state] agency separately to tell them about their difficulties over and over again," Ohisalo says.

August 4, 2017 at 11:22: This article was edited to correct a reporting error regarding when the Finnish state began offering financial support to bread queue organisations. Finnish bread queue organisations have been able to apply to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health for financial support since 2016.

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