Estonian Food Bank (EFB) is a NGO, logistical organisation as they call themselves, which focuses on social mobility through providing much needed help for people on a downward spiral or in extreme poverty. EFB was founded in 2010 with the financial support of the Estonian-Netherlands Charity Foundation Sunflower and Swedbank. Simultaneously, the Tallinn Food Bank in Northern Tallinn was founded, but due to the success of the initiative, as well as the need to intervene, other food banks were soon founded all over Estonia (there are currently 11 food banks in Estonia and two more are planned). The initiative started its activities in Northern Tallinn. This is partly due to the fact that poverty and many social problems are especially prominent here, and partly because of a coincidence since the Northern Tallinn District Government provided the necessary premises.
The main goals of the food bank are as follows: to fight against poverty, to reduce food waste, to create solidarity between people and social security for the weakest. Although there are many in need, EFB’s activity is mainly aimed towards helping families with small and/or many children living below the subsistence level. Other groups recognised are the elderly living alone and often immobile as well as the disabled and ill people. The list of people in need of support is comprised together with the Department of Social Services of Northern Tallinn. EFB is a member of the European Federation of Food Banks (FEBA).
According to the interviewee: “there might be as many as 200,000 people who need food aid [the population of Estonia is ca. 1,3 million]. At the same time there are 200,000 tons of food going to waste every year.” EFB’s activities are organised by three people and with the help of volunteers (15–30 people every week). The food is distributed through charity organisations such as the Salvation Army, Tallinn Association of Large Families. Cooperation (to collect food, to define and reach the target groups) exists mainly with local government, NGOs, private enterprises, large and small producers, schools, the national army and retail chains. There is a clear wish to have more collaboration with the local governments, whose support has mostly remained at the level of moral appreciation. Resources, food and money, are obtained via donations.
The EFB helps to maintain hope and motivation of a better social status and economic wellbeing of those people who have abruptly lost their job, fallen seriously ill or for some other reason have been hit by social problems. The EFB helps them to keep being motivated by securing their basic needs. According to the interviewee, the EFB tries to break the common thought pattern for both, the ones in need and the ones with possibilities to help. Often the reason why people need (food) aid is more complex and they are not comfortable to talk about it. Consequently, much work needs to be done in the social welfare institutions’ personnel, as frequently the person whose job it is to help has developed the attitude that the people in need of help have themselves created the situation which they are in. This may lead the ones in need of help to self-isolation and disenchantment with the government’s social welfare system: “When, for some reason, the person ‘falls’ deep, he needs help and in Estonia the help is not very readily available.” EFB is a direct voice for the need to redistribute resources in Estonian society, and to enhance the social mobility of those who are in the bottom of the downward spiral. However, the members of the initiative encounter the mentality “that members of the EFB probably use the food themselves, or take the money for themselves”, but overall, such stereotypes are disappearing. When analysing the media coverage of the past few years, it is apparent that the seed of solidarity has been planted.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
In terms of redistribution and the need to provide the minimum urgent help for those in extreme poverty, this socio-economic gap is considered a negative aspect of diversity. EFB encounters this gap: poor (large) families, people with disabilities, unemployed, and people with anti-social characteristics – all who temporarily or more or less permanently need (food) aid. Northern Tallinn District Government recognises this role of EFB and emphasises further that socio-economic diversity – social inequality – often tends to follow ethnic lines. According to the representative of the Northern Tallinn District Government:
“(Diversity) has negative aspects. All social problems are rooted in this kind of diversity. … For instance, the people who migrated here during the Soviet period, they do not have the family ties and their safety net is more fragile … Diversity also means that some would do worse than others. These initiatives like Bethel’s Congregation and EFB help to reduce the diversity. But in terms of welfare they again diversify.”
EFB does not direct its action consciously towards urban diversity (against socio-economic inequality), rather they act on the sense of mission – noticing the extreme poverty, and they have decided to intervene. Different lifestyles, reflecting wealth or poverty, often become apparent side-by-side in urban space and may lead to displacement of socially weak groups. This may be avoided through redistribution which is, simply put, the aim of EFB.
Main factors influencing success or failure
The action of EFB finds motivation in success stories from people who have been in a crisis and have found a way out. The EFB brings international experience and knowledge, the work of volunteers and the effort and compassion of ordinary people into the social care sector. Besides alleviating poverty, this activity builds bridges between people with different socio-economic statuses, and facilitates the social mobility of those in deep poverty. Working as a volunteer is gaining popularity among young people in Estonia, and such work might be the only connection between them and the people in lower social classes.
There are some legislative improvements needed in the areas of activities of the EFB. For example, the food labelling system of ‘best before’ and ‘expiring’ should be organised better. Confusion with labelling hampers the cooperation with retail chains whose profitability is tied to their public image, e.g. they want to avoid scandals. At the moment, EFB follows the list issued by the Netherlands Veterinary and Food Board, which is not always accepted by Estonian partners.
Another factor holding back successful action is the insufficient funding from the local and state government. According to the interviewee, public actors should fund more different NGOs which at the moment receive the majority of funding from external charities. He elaborates that, for example, the city of Tallinn or the central government of Estonia could help by paying for the rent or transportation:
“It is absurd when the state says they do not have the money for their people and at the same time talk about projects like Rail Baltica or Saaremaa Bridge. This gives the people the feeling that their own state does not support them.”
EFB is a grass-root initiative, born in Northern Tallinn, in the district where the socioeconomic differences are most prominent in the city. The idea was brought from the Netherlands, it was first implemented in Northern Tallinn and, later, its activities have spread all across the country. EFB acts towards reducing poverty that is an unavoidable but still unwanted aspect of urban diversity everywhere. Its innovation was to build up a low-cost and effective system that distributes food to those in great need. While some families are in continuous need of assistance, the initiative also aims to contribute to the social mobility of those who may have hope to exit the downward spiral. The work of EFB has been done by other organisations before, like Bethel’s Congregation and Soup Kitchen, but EFB has elicited this to a larger scale by creating networks of collaboration between all these above mentioned organisations and, in addition, the local government, other NGOs and government financed organisations, as well as volunteers. Estonian Food Bank is thus a good example of how a third sector organisation with its decisive actions is able to tackle social problems in the city, even when creating a wider cooperation network with public institutions requires more time.