With a soaring number of low-income families in relative poverty, Norway’s food banks are offering respite to their people and their country’s food waste problem. But is it enough?
When most people think of Norway, they tend to imagine skiing down mountain-tops, “hygge” at the family cabin or a political utopia. However, despite these conceptions being somewhat true, there is a much darker side to this Scandinavian country that gets swept under the rug.
Around 12.7% of the nation lives in ‘relative poverty’ meaning that this chunk of the population has an income less than 60% of the median national income and cannot afford all that the rest of the society can. While this is not what the UN defines as ‘absolute poverty’ where one cannot afford the basic needs of survival, relative poverty still leads to exclusion and poorer health.
Living in such relative poverty conditions are Sigrid and her family. Despite being in her 40s, she lives with her husband and three children on minimum wage. “I’m on disability benefits with the lowest income and can’t afford much. I’ve been depressed and my own family calls me a beggar because I got help,” she says.
Along with spending her days taking care of her children, Sigrid volunteers at her local food bank three times a week. However, because of her disability and responsibility of taking care of her children’s health issues, her husband is the primary breadwinner. “My husband works around the clock for us to have a stable life and not be thrown out onto the streets,” she says.
As Sigrid recalls her time as a student, it becomes clear that finances have always been a continuous struggle for her. “At that time, I had next to no money and no food. I was hungry for several days as I had to prioritise my daughter’s diapers and food,” she says. Even years later, before she became disabled and the current cost of living crisis kicked in, she had to drop eating at restaurants and holidaying, and her kids had to stop sports activities.
This is the reality for Sigrid and thousands of other families, a stark contrast to those who may live down the street with Teslas and Armani suits. Due to financial problems like Sigrid’s, a soaring number of Norwegians are forced to go hungry and compromise on nutrition to save money.
“I know what it means to starve. I know what it means to have nothing to offer your children. I know what it’s like to be ashamed that you are poor and have no income,” Sigrid says. “It’s not easy. But with a little help and a hand to support you, things can get better. We have received that hand from our local food bank, and they help hundreds of families every week,” she says. The quantity of food varies from week to week, sometimes the bag is full of fruit and vegetables and dinner, and other weeks there is very little.
Although charities like the Salvation Army have been offering food aid for over a hundred years, it was not until 2013 that the first food bank opened in Norway. Today, Matsentralen (food bank) has eight locations spread across the country and works in partnership with hundreds of local charities to distribute surplus food to those in need.
Their existence becomes crucial because in 2022 alone, Norway discarded around 450,000 tonnes of food. According to Norsus, Norway’s institute for sustainable research, the annual value of this food waste exceeds £1.6 billion. That number becomes more disturbing when, as calculated by Statistics Norway, approximately 6% of the 5.4 million population is barely able to make ends meet. Thousands of families continue to struggle as food, gas and electric bills soar so what Matsentralen does plays a significant role in Norway.
Matsentralen’s office is like any ordinary food warehouse, a cooler room with floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with miscellaneous food and drinks. What sets it apart, however, is that amidst the pallets of perfectly edible meat, dairy and wheat products lies the ugly truth exposing the disconnect of low-income households, lack of access to nutritional and affordable meals and the country’s food waste problem.
Geir Arne Skogeng Nordstrand, manager of Matsentralen Tromsø, points out that when their food bank first opened, it was an environmental initiative to save surplus food. But over the past decade, “they have gone from being an environmental initiative to becoming the first line service to ensure that people have food on the table all over the country.”
In addition to their warehouse where charities collect food to distribute, the Tromsø location has a Food Station which is a store located in the city centre. They are open 15 hours every week from Tuesday to Friday and look after 1,800 to 2,100 people each week.
“It is quite absurd that people are queuing for food in a small city like Tromsø in 2023 where we have over 200,000 children growing up in low-income families. I have never experienced greater differences than what we see today. I see the increase from week to week and it looks like poverty has become the new normal and that is sad and unnecessary,” Nordstrand adds.
Christian Førland, who works for the food bank Matsentralen Sør echoes this struggle, “When people run into financial challenges, the food budget is usually the first to be cut. You buy cheaper products that tend to have a lower nutritional content or end up eating less variety and cut out various items for meals.” This could include buying cheaper fish gratin with a lower percentage of fish or eating only rice and chicken for a week, for example.
“Altogether, in 2022, we handed out 805 tonnes of food in Rogaland (second largest food bank site) alone,” says Tor Jan Bredenbekk, Rogaland’s manager. They work with around 50 charities to distribute surplus food every week. “This is around 1.6 million meals that would’ve been thrown away if we weren’t here.”
The large parts of the food missed by food banks and thrown away in Norway are due to reasons like overproduction, incorrect ordering, errors on packaging and seasonal changes but also something as simple as cosmetic failures. Bredenbekk explains that when he asks suppliers why they are throwing/giving away the food, he often sees them struggling to explain why. “It could be the wrong shade of colour on a yoghurt cup, so we get six pallets of yoghurt because the blueberry is too purple in colour,” Bredenbekk says, highlighting the effects of cosmetic failures.
Out of the 450,000 tonnes of edible food thrown away in a year, the total amount of food distributed between the eight Norwegian food banks only amounts to 65,000 tonnes. “It becomes even more troubling that we throw away such great food when we look out of the window though there’s an organisation that distributes it,” Bredenbekk continues. “It is sad that the world’s richest society, which we are on paper, needs a food bank. We should be able to arrange for everyone to be satisfied without having a central office where people have to contact or stand in a queue to get food assistance.”
As a person who is living this reality, Sigrid strongly feels that the authorities should change policy to make things work. “I am afraid that there will be more families who end up in financial problems.
I’m not ungrateful for what we get but it [policy change] would be better so that people can live stable lives and not have to go around feeling ashamed,” she says. Nordstrand from the Tromsø site backs Sigrid as he says, “This is the reality, and we choose to deal with it. The government can take part should they want to, eventually. It’s fantastic that we’re allowed to continue, I just hope the need doesn’t grow anymore. But if nothing happens at the government level, I’m afraid that the need will grow.”
As the demand grows, food banks are challenged, but every small difference in somebody’s life matters. Bredenbek from Rogaland recalls an interaction that makes all their hard work worth it. “I was in my office one day and this person came around the corner and into the room to give me a bear hug and he said, ‘thank you for helping save my life.’ That woke up a lot of things in me. This is actually a matter of life and death for someone. It’s about staying alive.”
*Sigrid is used as a pseudonym due to privacy concerns
Featured image by Christian Førland