Volunteers tackle Ukraine's food poverty crisis

Volunteers tackle Ukraine's food poverty crisis
Ukrainians standing in line at Tarilka food bank / bne IntelliNews
By Dominic Culverwell in London March 14, 2023

The Russian invasion has caused a poverty crisis in Ukraine and the most vulnerable citizens are struggling with basic necessities, particularly food. Whilst the Ukrainian government and global allies are alleviating some of the pressure through financial aid to tackle the $40bn budget deficit, volunteers are also doing their part to carry the country through the war and beyond.

On the southern outskirts of Lviv, an unassuming office at the bottom of a Soviet tower block offers a glimpse into the future of Ukrainian food stability. It's called Tarilka, meaning “Plate”; Ukraine's first food bank which was established in 2019. Although prevalent across Western Europe, the concept is new for Ukrainians but one that is helping thousands in dire times.

“The idea of a food bank saves lives, saves food and improves our ecological situation,” Susanna says. She is one of the 60 volunteers at Tarilka, having moved to Lviv from Kharkiv due to the war, and despite her difficult circumstances is eager to help those in need in her adopted city.

Susanna had never heard of a food bank before joining Tarilka but sees them as a solution to Ukraine’s skyrocketing poverty rate. By the end of 2023, as much as 55% of Ukraine’s population could be in poverty, according to the World Bank, with Ukraine’s economy remaining in a precarious situation.

Tarilka has more than 7,000 residents registered in its Lviv database. Partnering with organisations like Danone, and Nestle as well as local food producers, the organisation hands out food kits to people in need, both in Lviv and across Ukraine. Tarilka has two other food banks- in Kyiv and Kherson- which also help vulnerable residents including internally displaced people (IDPs). Since March 2022, the organisation has cooperated with the UN World Food Programme, distributing food aid in East and South Ukraine, including recently liberated territories, with more than 14mn loaves of bread distributed last year. 

But the organisation has been under immense pressure since the full-scale war began, with thousands more signing up to the programme and no financial support from the government. Prior to the full-scale invasion, the food bank only had 2,000 customers, but this number has more than tripled since Russia destroyed homes, increased unemployment and forced a massive refugee wave.

By 4.30pm, a group of elderly ladies impatiently waited outside the office and by the time doors opened at 6pm the number had grown to around 40, with pensioners making up 73.2% of the clientele. Although funding from the EU and the USA is helping pay Ukrainian pensions, many are still getting by on as little as $80 a month.

Whilst the majority of elderly people have their own homes, typically inherited from the Soviet-era, they often rely on younger family members to cover basics such as food and healthcare. But with many Ukrainian workers losing jobs or taking a pay cut, this has had a trickle-down effect on their poorer relatives. This is where Tarilka steps in, collecting food from local shops and catering business that would otherwise go to waste.

“For them it's not important what kind of food they get, they just need food,” Susanna states.

A group of five volunteers hand out the allocated packages, containing items like bread, pasta, biscuits and a few pieces of fruit and vegetables. Although frustrated at the small pension, they are grateful for Tarilka’s support expressed through the small tip jar that is near the entrance.

Tarilka isn't only helping pensioners. With inflation at 26%, the war has affected everyone living in Ukraine and food prices have escalated. Disabled people make up 18.3% of the clientele, 5.5% are from the military, 1.3% are families in poverty and 1.7% are large families with many children.

Despite expanding their Lviv office to hold more supplies, Tarilka is not able to help everyone and only supports Lviv’s residents rather than the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people that have moved to the city.

Before the war, volunteers packed 20 food parcels a day, but this has now gone up to 40. As such, they can only help 1,000 people a month, meaning people have to wait for up to seven months to receive the next package. The volunteers know that the current model is unsustainable.

“The demand is much higher than supply. We understand that we should increase the quantity of people in this food bank,” Susanna says.

Volunteers hand out food packages 

As such, the three Tarilka food banks registered the Association of Food Banks of Ukraine last month in order to encourage other cities to follow suit and open local centres.  With the support of the Ukrainian Charity Zagoriy Foundation, the Association has already released a manual on how to open and develop a food bank and continues to further popularise the culture of food banks in Ukraine.

“In the future, we believe that food banks will be ordinary practice in different cities. Because it is an answer for poverty and the ecological catastrophe,” Susanna claims.

Whilst no country should have to be forced to rely on food banks, with no end in sight to the war and Ukraine already suffering $700bn in damages and a 30% decline in GDP last year, it could be the grassroots movement needed to at least ease the pain of poverty.

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