Interview: Toidupank ('Food Bank') founder on initiative's first decade

Toidupank founder Piet Boerefijn.
Toidupank founder Piet Boerefijn. Source: Katrin Press/Toidupank

Poverty in Estonia seems to be a topic that never goes away. In spite of the huge material leaps forward made since independence and particularly since EU accession, there are those who have been left behind, under a social security system which, it would be fair to say, is underfunded.

Sometimes partnerships with the private sector can be the only answer, and one excellent example of this is Toidupank ("food bank" in English), an initiative founded by Dutchman Piet Boerefijn 10 years ago, who filled-in ERR News on how the organization started, problems it has faced along the way, and outlook for the future, with information on how to get involved as well.

We started out with Piet's background. How did he end up in Estonia and what was the rationale behind Toidupank?

"I came here first in 1992 as a student, when I organized an exchange between the University of Utrecht and the University of Tartu, but with the change in currency that came in in that year, as the Ruble was ditched and the Kroon introduced, the return trip was financially not viable for the Tartu university students."

"However, I came to do my masters thesis in Estonia, on Estonian regional development and its economy, then the following year I decided to come back again, to spend one year to learn the language and look for some other opportunities. So I wasn't quite there at the beginning of independence with the singing revolution of the late 80s, but have seen all the changes since then."

But is there something deep-seated in Dutch society, traditionally mostly calvinist, which acts as a motivation in helping-out those in need?

"All cultures and religions etc. have concepts of charitable giving, but funnily enough, according to a history of Tallinn, a large book I just bought, in 13th-14th centuries, there was a food bank even then. Some rich merchants wanted to do something with surplus fish, for instance, which they gave to the poor. The people had to wear a badge in order to qualify (similar badges from the same period, though in this case indicating the wearer had been on pilgrimage, were found in an archaeological dig last year in the Kalamaja district of the city-ed.) So we think it's something new, but it isn't."

Rapid pace of change in Estonia

"Estonia is still changing very quickly, but in early '90s the change was really rapid, with empty shops suddenly appearing, the streets were empty because fuel costs were so high, as suddenly people had to pay world market prices after independence. Normal people could not afford a lot of things. At the Ülemiste junction, for instance, there was just a roundabout and at 5 p.m. there'd be like one car driving there, yet look how congested it is now."

"It was shock therapy, as it were. They had to build up everything from scratch, the laws, police, borders, taxation system etc. It changed very quickly as well for instance if some new laws were not working well, they just changed them, but this made it difficult for investor certainty, it was a risky time."

"After joining the EU, things became much more expensive. It got much easier to get a loan as the banks were now covered by the Euro and EU system. So for businessmen became easier, but for normal people, maybe not."

"I can remember when a cup of tea or coffee was about 3 Kroons in a cafe, but now it's more expensive than in Germany, say, and the prices, especially food prices, went up rapidly."

"I was worked for a funding project in the Netherlands for the central and eastern European countries, aimed at the elderly, children, homeless, disabled people, addicted people etc. Its supported around 1,000 projects, small and large, around Estonia, from 1992. I became their representative from the beginning of 1995."

Did this outside help mean that the old or even existing systems of social support were wholly not up to the job?

"Well you have inequality in every society but for instance in the Netherlands the social services are still better compared with Estonia, although Estonia is getting better, it also cannot be compared with the Scandinavian countries either."

"Social care in the Soviet Union was good in theory, on paper, but very bad in reality. For example, often disabled children were left in hospital rather than being taken by the family, and many later died. We have done a lot of work to improve things but the problem has always been with money – compare how much goes on infrastructure projects, like Rail Baltica, highway building, possible Saaremaa bridge and Helsinki tunnel; but what about social benefits? These are still very low, and families with 6 children are often left with about five euros per day for food, which is obviously impossible to get by on."

Enter Toidupank

"So 10 years ago founded Toidupank, just when the major economic crash took place and a lot of people lost their jobs, couldn't pay-off loans etc. It was a real time of panic. We had been preparing for two years, but didn't have funds or food, so we thought one day we just had to start, rather than preparing forever. In Kopli, there was a social center with a large room, with one corner which we could use to place covered boxes with a sign saying 'food bank'. We probably started with 50 kg of food in the first weeks."

Nowadays, Toidupank has a fair-sized warehouse in Lasnamäe in Tallinn, and food deliveries are sent nationwide from this depot as well as a place for local recipients to get their food parcels. It has plenty of space, a wide variety of crates of fruit, packaged food, and even books and other items as well as a cold storage room.

Toidupank warehouse in Lasnamäe. Source: Andrew Whyte/ERR News

There are distribution centers in all the county towns in the country, though sometimes there is a race to take, particularly meat products, to the provinces. This is because 'to-be-used-by' (Kõlblik Kuni) types of food can be distributed until midnight on the night on its last day of expiry and not later.

A sign-in system prevents abuse of the facility, and recipients and families are allocated their quotas, which also uses a color-coded system.

Problems and challenges

Nonetheless, problems with bureaucracy have been a toil.

"It takes a lot of time, to get things squared away. Hopefully next month we are signing a contract with the Ministry of Social Affairs to adopt program which was was set up by the EU over 5 years ago, then we have to wait for the money itself to start coming through. This is a program for the weakest people in society, but it will have been almost six years since it was signed into being that it actually starts producing."

Toidupank food distribution. Source: Katrin Press/Toidupank

"This is a problem with the EU, not Estonia, but also in Estonia we often have to wait a long time for decisions. For instance when we asked if we could deep freeze food, we handed over all the guidelines and documents, the Dutch embassy helped to translate the documents into Estonia (as it had done with the food categorizations), but we still had to wait one and a half years, even after we'd been contacting them every month, to get approval, and even then we have to find the funds. We can't apply for funds if the food authorities (Toidupank falls under the auspices of the Veterinaar- ja Toiduamet, the Veterinary and Food Board-ed.) do not publish guidelines on what is allowed and whatnot."

Perhaps bureaucracy is always to be expected even when people's well-being is at stake, but there have been less-anticipated obstacles for Piet and Toidupank to overcome too.

"People in power might have been more supportive. At one time we were housed in some very small rooms with narrow doors which weren't suitable with all the carrying work, so we started looking for rooms. In the end we found something via the state management of care homes, but theses rooms were in very bad condition, lacking doors and electricity, and we had to install everything."

"Even then, they still did not give us the facilities for free, there was still rent to pay (to the social affairs ministry), which is a bit shocking since we were doing something which helped both the ministry(ies) as well as those in need. In the end I had to find friends from Germany and Holland who covered the rent, which then went to the ministry."

"Even with EU funds – the EU gives the money for food, the ministry of social affairs buys the food, but only 5 percent of this under law can go on distribution, which is where some real costs come in. In fact getting produce to more remote and rural areas, where costs are higher and more work involved, is not covered by this 5 percent."

Small market means big prices

Speaking of politics, while alcohol is, quite naturally, the one category of food and drink which Toidupank does not collect and distribute (though water, soft drinks, milk drinks, tea and coffee etc. certainly are), did the recent cut in excise on beer and wine, and before that the successive rounds of excise hikes, have any effect on Toidupank's operations?

"No it did not. But business as a whole, including the supermarkets, have been helpful. Most of the major supermarkets supply to us, including their surpluses (not just things at their use-by date either, some cheese products in the warehouse were good to go until November-ed.). In some cases it took a long time, as in 10 years, though. The Finnish-owned Prisma was the first to help, followed by Rimi, and later by Coop, Selver and Maxima."

"We accept all food types, though, with the exception of fruit and vegetables, these should always be packed and sealed and not tampered with – just as you'd find them in the stores in other words. We have to check the use-by dates too, which is sometimes difficult to find on some jars and things like that."

"Of course, trying to provide a full, healthy selection is key. Yes, children are going to like candy etc. but bear in mind fruit in particular is very seasonal, and it's really hard in winter to get a balance (when food generally is more expensive). The poorest people simply cannot afford such a balanced diet, not helped by the fact that some staples like sugar or pasta are more expensive here than in Finland."

Toidupank food distribution. Source: Katrin Press/Toidupank

"Although Estonia is somewhat nearer to the core of Europe than Finland is, with a smaller market, less competition, prices are much higher but at the same time wages are low – they might be slightly better than in Latvia and Lithuania but food prices are not so high in those countries either".

Signs of improvement

How about outside support at present. For all the bad press about the current coalition, was there a change when the (on paper) more welfare-minded Centre Party came into office in late 2016, compared with the more free market oriented Reform, which had been in office for years and presided over long period of economic growth, followed by the crash of 2009-2010?

"A little. In the last three years we've been getting more support from both Tallinn City Government and the Ministry of Social Affairs. They're coming realize they need partners, instead of trying to solve everything themselves. They need charities, NGOs etc. The social affairs ministry is definitely getting more supportive."

"Some of the foreign representations have been really good, including Spain, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, they gave small financial help but what is also really key is lobby work. The former U.K. ambassador to Estonia, Chris Holtby, did a lot to help those in poverty and to combat food waste. He came down to the depot with his family to work as a volunteer, but he was also able to get the issue taken seriously at the Riigikogu, and as a result of his hard work we got funds from the gambling tax revenue!"

"The media too, can be quite helpful. Not always – there have been a few untrue stories circulated in the past about Toidupank but 98 percent of it has been positive, with a twice-yearly food drives getting coverage on the radio, for instance with Kuku Raadio and Vikerraadio, or ETV's Jõulutunnel broadcast, from where we got three of the transit vans and other things, for instance."

What next?

What about the future? Toidupank looks like it has come a long way in 10 years, but where is it going to go next?

"Food waste is still very much on the agenda. To be frank, the government has done little or nothing about this problem, which exists not only with supermarkets but also at restaurants, and even cruise ships – these have been known to dump their unwanted food, including really high-quality stuff, overboard, into the sea."

"We are very thankful for all the food that is donated to us. But according to a research by Stockholm Environment Institute Tallinn, less than 10% of all food that supermarkets can not sell is donated to the food bank or other charities. The problem is that supermarkets have to do extra work if they donate the food: they have to sort it in different food groups, pack it, store it in cold rooms, make shipping bills and hand it out to us. Throwing away is faster, easier and takes less space. The main problem of supermarkets is the lack of manpower, so often they can not donate to us because there is nobody to do the extra work. Many European countries have laws on food waste or special tax incentives which makes donations to food banks much more attractive.

"Also, unlike, say, in the U.K., where refuse removal is very pricey, it is quite cheap in Estonia so there's no economic disincentive to throw food away. A recent TV3 report – I didn't see it but someone told me – said a meat truck had been doing just that, for instance. They could have just called us instead."

"Speaking of the U.K., Tescos has a system called food cloud, with a network of volunteers enabling supermarkets to see in real time charities and other organizations near them, which allow the effective distribution of surplus food. We could do with something like that here really.

"The government, and four of the ministries – economic affairs, the social ministry, the environment ministry and the rural affairs ministry – could all do more too. Tax rebates for those who donate is one incentive which could be introduced, for example."

How can I help?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what should a person reading this do if they want to volunteer or help Toidupank in some way?

"Go to the website here. We have 14 food banks all over the country and around 220 volunteers every week, but there is a particular shortage of drivers, to drive the Toidupank vehicles, not just within Tallinn but longer distances to the other towns."

"You can donate food products – there are some collection points in supermarkets, for instance Prisma, and twice a year we have food drives. The next one is Dec. 13-14, so keep that in the diary, we'll be collecting food, but we'll also need about 1,000 volunteers to do the work."

"If you're outside Estonia, you can also donate on the site, and if you're in Estonia, the next event is a charity dinner called Lapsed Söönuks (Feed The Children) on Sept. 26 in Siidrifarm near Kose, organized by Kristjan Peäske of Leib restaurant for the third time this year, which brings together five of the best restaurants for an evening of fine food. It's ticket-based, and 100 percent of proceeds are going to make investments in the food banks in Tartu, Põlva, Võru in Valga."


Thanks to Piet Boerefijn, Liina Peäske, Indrek Kaing and everyone at Toidupank for making this interview possible.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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