European welfare states differ from each other in terms of their welfare regimes. For example, in southern Europe family networks’ role in guaranteeing social security is greater than in northern Europe, where people lean more on social security guaranteed by the public sector. Also the role of the third sector and faith based organizations in providing social security varies.

During recent decades, Europe has undergone a wave of neo-liberal policy, which has shaped and, for its part, also uniformed European welfare policies. Alleviation and reducing poverty are core tasks of social policy. Food insecurity, i.e. a situation in which individuals cannot afford nourishing food for themselves and their families, is one dimension of poverty.

A comparison across seven European countries (Finland, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain, and UK) shows that irrespective of the traditional welfare regime charity-based food aid has emerged in all these countries, either to replace or amend the previously prevailing way of producing social security.

The public sector has withdrawn from its responsibility and the resources of family networks are running out. In this setting, charity organisations have assumed part of the traditional responsibility of the public sector as regards protecting people from poverty.

The overall picture of European food aid is fragmented. There are no common terminology, shared practices or comparable statistics on the activities. We can differentiate, however, between two forms of food aid in terms of their goals: the delivery of free-of-charge food as emergency aid is intended as temporary aid for acute needs in a crisis. Although the purpose is to provide temporary help for those in an immediate crisis, the need for food aid is often long-standing and emergency food is distributed to alleviate prolonged poverty. The other form of food aid is meant for long-term help. It can be arranged, for example, by offering pay cards or inexpensive food in social markets or food cooperatives.

When public responsibility is shifting to charity organisations, social rights become essentially in focus. Food aid is not a universal right available generally equitably and equally to everybody.

Charity organisations can voluntarily assume public sector responsibility for protecting those living in disadvantaged settings, but the organisations have no legal obligation for this. By the same token, neither have people in need of food any statutory right to food aid. Hence, charity work simply cannot replace statutory social security.

Usually an economic recession pushes people out from the labour market, and the need for food aid increases. Now we have a societal crisis at hand due to the Corona virus, and this shows in breadlines and food banks as well. Can we leave people’s last-resort food security to the responsibility of charity work, when we are encountering a crisis– be it economic or more broadly a societal one? Or would it now be time for the public sector to stand out and take care of its responsibility?

Tiina Silvasti, Professor of Social Policy, Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy
Ville Tikka, Doctoral Researcher, Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy

For more on this subject, see the recent edited work: Hannah Lambie-Mumford & Tiina Silvasti (eds.) (2020) The Rise of Food Charity in Europe. Bristol, Policy Press.

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