German pensioner Gabriele Washah queues to fill her trolley with bags of 50-cent carrots, yogurts that have passed their sell-by date and bouquets of wilted flowers.
As the cost of living soars across Europe, the 65-year-old retired salesman is one of many Germans turning to food banks to make ends meet.
“Sometimes I come home from the store almost crying because I can’t afford it anymore,” she told AFP in front of the row of stalls in Bernau, near Berlin.
Tucked away in an alley behind a major supermarket chain, the food bank sells groceries donated by supermarkets at deeply discounted prices, as well as inexpensive prepared meals.
Here, customers can pick up a cart full of food for around 30 euros (about $32).
For Washah, that means bread, butter and her favorite sandwich filling, sausage – “which used to cost 99 cents ($1.02) but now sometimes costs more than two euros”.
Driven by war in Ukraine, inflation in Germany soared to 7.9% in May, its highest level since reunification in 1990, with food prices among the hardest hit.
Demand for food banks across the country has increased “significantly” since the start of the year and has doubled in some areas, according to a spokeswoman for Tafel’s food bank network.
There are around 1,000 such programs in Germany, run by volunteers and accessible to customers on a means-tested basis.
Groceries, though donated, are still sold rather than given to customers for free, as the Tafel must cover running costs, including rent and electricity. The organization has also had to increase its prices because its operating costs have increased.
“It’s not just one product,” said Peter Behme, a 69-year-old retiree. “All prices are going up.”
– Poverty line –
To ease the pressure on struggling finances, the government lowered fuel taxes, drastically reduced the cost of public transport and promised all taxpayers a one-time payment of 300 euros.
But Behme remains unimpressed. “I don’t know where the government aid is going,” he said.
Even food banks themselves are feeling the effects of massive inflation.
“We had to increase some prices by 20 or 50 cents because we need money to replenish our stocks,” said Malina Jankow, manager of the Bernau food bank.
In addition to pensioners and the unemployed, the queues are now also filling up with Ukrainian refugees.
Anna Dec, a 35-year-old hospital worker, came to Bernau with two Ukrainian women who are staying with her and who currently each receive 449 euros per month in benefits.
“They have to pay for water, energy, food, hygiene products… It’s almost nothing,” she says.
Overwhelmed by the influx of customers, some food banks in Germany had to refuse new arrivals or ration the food they distributed.
“We have long been asking the government for a law to force supermarkets to donate their unsold food,” said Norbert Weich, 72, president of the food bank.
Some 16% of Germans, or more than 13 million people, lived below the poverty line in 2020, according to a study by the charity Deutscher Paritaetische Gesamtverband, published in December 2021.
“The Food Bank Federation has a resolution: As soon as we are no longer needed, we will disband,” Weich said. “But I don’t think it will be in my lifetime.”