Food Handout Ban for Foreigners Sparks Debate in Germany Over Racism, Migration Policies

By James Carstensen | March 1, 2018 | 12:54 AM EST

Trucks belonging to the Tafel food bank in Essen were vandalized. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Berlin ( – A decision by a food bank here to stop providing food to anyone without German citizenship has stirred an ongoing national debate over discrimination and migration policy, with blame flying in more than one direction.

The “Tafel” (Table) food bank, a non-profit non-governmental organization in the western city of Essen, collects food nearing expiration date from restaurants and supermarkets to give to about 6,000 needy people each week.

Local media initially caught wind of the decision to stop registering foreigners, which the organization on its website attributed to “the increase in the number of refugees in recent years.”

After reports drew angry reactions, the NGO’s manager, Jörg Sartor, expressed surprise at the response, telling a press conference that he did not “understand all the excitement” about the decision, which took effect in January.

He said elderly people were frightened away from the food bank, citing complaints of “pushing and shoving,” and blaming migrants who do not understand Germany’s culture of standing in line but have a “give me” attitude.

Those comments only fueled the controversy. Over the following weekend, six of the food bank’s delivery vans and one of its entrances were vandalized with graffiti slogans such as “Nazi.”

The Essen Tafel is one of 930 food banks across Germany, but the only one to ban foreigners.  Manfred Jabs, head of Tafel food banks in two other German states, told the Zeit newspaper the Essen move was discriminatory and “a contradiction of the founding principles of the Tafels.”

The move does not contravene anti-discrimination law, however, as that does not cover the issue of food handouts.

Still, a spokesman for the federal Anti-Discrimination Agency said it was “fundamentally questionable” to exclude people because they are refugees.

Chancellor Angela Merkel also waded into the issue, telling the RTL broadcaster that “one shouldn’t make such distinctions,” but also acknowledging that the situation highlighted the “pressures” facing nonprofit organizations.

Others have similarly labelled the move as discriminatory.

“I can only appeal to our society that we do not define ourselves by German or not German, but that we define ourselves as decent or indecent,” Joachim Stamp, interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia state (where Essen is located) told a session of the state’s parliament Wednesday.

But others blamed Merkel’s refugee policies, which have seen 1.2 million asylum seekers arrive in the country since 2015.

The far-right anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party said the chancellor’s “asylum chaos” had forced the food bank’s hand.

“Who could have reckoned with an extra 75 percent of asylum scroungers at the charity, who use their elbows against the weak?” the AfD asked in a statement, referring to Sartor’s claims of “pushing and shoving” scaring elderly Germans.

Left Party leader Sahra Wagenknecht also blamed the government, saying its poor planning after the refugee crisis overburdened nonprofit groups.

“It isn’t right that the poorest people bear the costs of migration,” she said in a radio interview. “Irresponsible government policies,” rather than the food bank in Essen, had “poisoned the political climate,” Wagenknecht added.

Poverty issues researcher Christoph Butterwegge pointed to the government’s social policies as the problem, telling DW that “the main thing here is the successive cutbacks of the social welfare system.”

Butterwegge said the food bank’s decision smacked of racism – “nationality cannot be a selection criterion for food aid” – but that preventing hunger “is the government’s responsibility.”

The food bank’s leaders held an “emergency” meeting Tuesday to discuss the outcry. They agreed to meet with lawmakers in two weeks’ time to discuss alternate solutions, but nevertheless committed to maintaining the ban until summer.

Government spokesman Steffen Seibert told the mayor of Essen Wednesday that Merkel welcomed the decision to hold discussions on the matter and would be “very interested” in the outcome.

“Need is need,” Seibert said. “Citizenship is not a guideline.”

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