Refugee Relief – Volunteering at the Berliner Tafel
Over the past couple of years, I have been splitting my time between Canada and Germany. When war broke out between Russia and Ukraine, Berlin, the City that I am most familiar with, became a safe zone for refugees fleeing the war. Germany has been the migration hub for Europe for centuries, dating back to the Roman Empire, so it is no surprise that this war would add to the flow of people from across the globe to move through Germany seeking safe harbour. The war, global social unrest, inflation and the ongoing ripple effects from COVID management policies, have strained German social service agencies, not unlike North America. With these complex issues in mind, what can one donor do to address the ever-increasing demands of individuals’ basic needs in North America or abroad? While in Germany, I had an opportunity to help with refugee relief by volunteering at the Berliner Tafel.
Place2Give & Food Security
Place2Give launched its Ukrainian Aid Fund shortly after the war started with a $10,000 donation to the UN’s Blue Dot initiative. The focus of this donation was to help the children fleeing the war. Since then, we have supported other international organizations like The World Central Kitchen through our partners. Most recently, I spent a day volunteering with the Berliner Tafel, packing food hampers for refugees who call train stations and emergency shelters home.
If you have read any of my K&C posts about food insecurity and the role of food banks you may be surprised that I would choose to spend my time participating in a system that I believe is fundamentally flawed. Consider this – food banks have become the waste management solution for major grocery chains, offloading their organic waste to a charity to sort through and dispose of. Granted, there is a huge positive environmental impact as food waste is redirected from landfills and composters. However, this also used significant volunteers hours sorting through the moldy waste to pick out viable fresh produce for redistribution.
The business of philanthropy is complicated. It is never just a cash donation and walking away. There is always a ripple effect of that donation. It is no different than any type of transaction where there is an exchange of goods and services. The only difference is that in philanthropy, the goods and services are for social purposes instead of profit. However, if you consider the role that food banks play in the food system, profit plays a large part. It is as much about managing operational expenses of food suppliers as it is about ensuring that food ends up in the bellies of those who need it.
Volunteering at the Berliner Tafel
My day at the Berliner Tafel was spent doing just as I described above. I sorted through boxes of bruised and moldy produce to find the edible items. I transferred those items into another crate for organizing into the food packets delivered to various locations around Berlin. On the day that I volunteered, there were 10 people doing this for five hours. If a food distributor had to pay staff to do this, it would cost, at a minimum wage salary 12€/hr, a total of 1,800€ for the day in addition to the wastage fee. This donation of “ugly fruit” to Berliner Tafel was more than just a means of feeding hungry people. It was a business decision for the vendor. This donation provided:
- a tax credit to the corporate donor,
- saved the corporation costs associated with human resources,
- off-set the company’s wastage fees,
- managed some of the ESG credits, and
- provided a good-news story about how it is helping people who are needing emergency food assistance.
So Why the Berliner Tafel?
So what is it about this particular food bank, and this particular program that drew me in? A few things:
- Food banks have become a necessary evil of our global poverty management strategy. Until we decide, as a society, that food banks should not be part of the food security solution, we have to seek out those trying to change the system from within.
- This organization recognizes that refugees are a different type of marginalized individual. The desperation of these individuals to leave everything familiar behind with the HOPE that maybe life will be better for them is not something to be undervalued. Consider the last time you gave up everything for something that was as intangible as an ideal… My guess is that very few of us have done so.
- They are not replicating that which is already in the market. Starting in the early 90’s this organization focused on providing food to organizations working directly with marginalized individuals. By partnering with existing organizations Berliner Tafel focuses on what it does best, the redistribution of food.
- Participating in the poverty reduction and food security discussion. Unlike other large food-based organizations, this organization plays a prominent role in evaluating the business of philanthropy and food security. It calls into question a number of things around the design of social systems and the improvements needed to ensure quality for clients and service providers.
I have a fundamental aversion to the Food Bank system. However, given the state of the Refugee situation in Germany, its proximity to the war in Ukraine, and its role as a clearing house for immigrants to other parts of Europe and the rest of the world; Germany’s food insecurity won’t be solved anytime soon. I will contribute time to the Berlin Tafel knowing that while I might have saved Amazon Fresh thousands of dollars in employee resources and waste management fees, I also helped feed 500 people one day.