Rising Poverty? Children Flock to German Soup Kitchens

More and more children are heading to Germany's soup kitchens for a warm meal. But as rising unemployment pushes more families into poverty, charities are struggling to keep up with lengthening queues.

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The rush for Germany's best-known soup kitchen kicks off at 12:30 sharp. Kids of three and four totter up the steep stairway to the entrance alongside primary school children burdened with large satchels. They are joined by 15-year-old girls with four younger siblings plus their own babies in tow. Many arrive on bicycles, while others take the tram from neighboring districts. They hotfoot it into the dining room where today's menu is pasta with turkey sauce.

By early afternoon, when the last meals have been served, some 500 boys and girls will, once again, have eaten a free lunch at the Arche (literally Ark, a youth center run by a Berlin-based Christian charity). The building, in Berlin's Hellersdorf district, was a school back in the days of communism, but it has since become a large-scale catering operation filling the stomachs of more people than most company cafeterias in Germany. The three cooks and their assistants provided some 200,000 meals in 2008, up 20 percent from the previous year.

Similar rapid increases in numbers have been seen at the almost 100 soup kitchens and similar facilities run by the Deutsche Tafel charity. Gerd Häuser, head of the organization, estimates that to date, almost a quarter of a million children have become regular visitors to its branches throughout Germany, with their affiliated free meal centers. It is an alarming figure, and one which reveals a great deal about Germany, the plight of those suffering from poverty and the failure of public policy.

Häuser sees the upsurge as a direct consequence of the low income provided by long-term welfare benefits in Germany, known as Hartz IV. Currently, parents of children under 14 are currently allocated just €211 per child each month. German welfare policy has long relied on the existence of soup kitchens to justify this miserly sum, said Häuser.

In late January, the Federal Social Court, which has jurisdiction over social affairs, announced that it considers the sum provided for children on welfare to be unconstitutional. The court argued that, when the benefit levels were set, the economic needs of children were not taken into account. Instead, legislators arbitrarily set the level at 40 percent less than that of adults. Now, it is up to the Federal Constitutional Court to review the law. Experts expect the court to up the allowance for children.

But many German families have ceased to even consider how much money is required each month to feed an eight-year-old child. They no longer think twice about sending their children to soup kitchens. Those providing the service doubt whether an extra €20 each month from the government will encourage parents to cook for their children again.

Free Meal Centers

On the contrary, the more free meal centers there are, the more people there are who frequent them. "At times it is actually supply that determines demand," said Tafel director Häuser.

Bernd Siggelkow, founder of the Arche charity, feels that his facility has become a factor drawing people to the district. He increasingly hears stories of families moving to Hellersdorf specifically because of the Arche provisions. Parents can save around €40 each month by sending their child to eat at the Arche canteen.

In Hamburg, the Löwenhaus children's center in the Harburg district provides an almost all-inclusive service. This initiative, organized by the Workers' Samaritan Federation Germany, offers three free meals a day and also provides excursions as well as help with homework.

The day at Löwenhaus begins at around 6:30 a.m., when pensioner Elke Schumacher switches on the kitchen light, spreads 100 slices of brown bread with butter and slices four kilos of sausage and cheese. She places an apple or mandarin beside each sandwich for a few extra vitamins. For some time now she has also prepared a number of poultry sausage sandwiches for the Muslim children.

The 67-year-old and her four volunteer helpers put together almost 35,000 breakfast packets in 2008 to satisfy the constant growth in demand. This figure is guaranteed to increase in 2009, money and food donations permitting, she says.

But it is doubtful that long-term financing will be available for this full board service for children. There are a growing number of charities competing for supermarket leftovers. Furthermore, the donations from the Workers' Samaritan Federation have long been insufficient to pay for the groceries required to feed all the children, according to Löwenhaus director Rainer Micha.

Moral Dilemma

This means that the Löwenhaus and similar free meal centers are faced with a moral dilemma. In the future, many of them may have to reduce the number of children they feed. Particularly, says Micha, because many parents aren't just interested in saving money. They send their children to the soup kitchens to save time as well. "Sometimes we also see cases of parents shirking their responsibilities," he notes.

But should children be made to suffer for their parents' alleged failings? Early in the midday rush a young boy starts to play table football in the lobby of the Löwenhaus, shyly turning the handles. No one knows him and after some time he gives his name as "Eugen", holding up seven fingers to indicate his age. Then the boy follows the other children, joins the queue and waits for his plate of rice and vegetables. "We can't just say sorry and send kids like him home," says Micha.

The Youth Welfare Office in Harburg is quick to advise needy families to send their children to the Löwenhaus for meals. Otherwise, aside from repeatedly unsuccessful requests for funds, Micha's contact with the authorities have been stereotypically German in nature. The Löwenhaus was ordered, for example, to comply with regulations calling for the installation a powerful ventilation hood over the stove in order to get rid of unpleasant cooking odors.

But free food provision is threatening to collapse as joblessness rises and donations fall. Charitable groups say there is just one solution: needy children should be provided with free school meals. State-funded school meals are guaranteed to go directly to the children who need them, unlike increased child benefit payments. Unfortunately, according to Arche founder Siggelkow, it is not uncommon for parents to spend their child allowance on alcohol, cigarettes or other unnecessary items.

Political Spat

But this seemingly sensible solution is still far from feasible in Germany. Politicians have spent years arguing over who would pay for school meals. Germany's states consider meal provision after school hours to be a type of welfare, and thus the responsibility of the national government. Berlin, for its part, argues that school policy falls within the competence of the states.

As a result, branches of the Deutsche Tafel and the Arche increasingly provide free meals in school dining rooms. Siggelkow's team, for example, has recently launched a service in the Am Priesterweg primary school in Potsdam, located in a district with many jobless parents and single-parent families, after school principal Elvira Eichelbaum's requests for public money to fund free school meals for needy children were refused.

The catalyst for this initiative was a crying first-grader who was brought to the principal's office some months ago. The girl had fallen from her chair in class, too weak to support herself. Seeing a cup of tea and a slice of bread on the principal's desk, her eyes widened. Eichelbaum offered the girl breakfast, which she grabbed greedily; her crying stopped. She had clearly had nothing to eat for several days.

In order to ensure that such a thing never happens again, Eichelbaum organized a lunch service for which each child was to pay €2.70 per day. The response was limited, however, as €2.70 was too much for most parents. To reduce the price, the principal asked the city and state governments for help, but her pleas fell on deaf ears.

After one meeting at the Brandenburg education ministry, Eichelbaum was invited to lunch at the ministry cafeteria. State officials, she was interested to learn, eat cheaply. A main course costs ministerial staff between 80 cents and €1.60.

Translated from the German by Fiona Thomson

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