Hungarian Food Bank’s Work More Vital Than Ever

Analysis

András Nagygyörgy

Photo by Csaba Fekete

Hungary is suffering a record increase in food prices of around 50%. Inevitably, this is hitting the most vulnerable hardest. Against this backdrop, the work of the Hungarian Food Bank Association has become even more critical.

Eight friends founded the Magyar Élelmiszerbank Egyesület, as it is known in Hungarian, in 2005. Since then, it’s operated on a non-profit basis, its growth driven by volunteers and donations from private individuals and companies.

A fundraiser for charities for the past 18 years, director of external relations András Nagygyörgy joined two years ago and was impressed by the efficiency of the organization and its impact from the start.

“We search for and collect food stocks that retailers and manufacturers would otherwise remove from their shelves and destroy,” he told me. “We currently save 30,000 kilos of food items every day. Last year alone, we delivered 8.7 million kilos of food to the needy and 239,000 people benefited.”

This model has been in existence since 2005. In the beginning, the Food Bank only rescued stocks from manufacturers, but 10 years ago, its volunteers started visiting retailers’ stores daily. The activists couldn’t predict what they would find in any store at the end of any given day, and perishable products needed to be distributed on the same day. To make sure these got to people who needed them, charities local to a store would take the food and share it close by. Today, the Food Bank has a national network of 600 partner organizations, and each charity distributes an average of 40-50 kilos a day.

Nagygyörgy stresses that food donations don’t just reduce poverty, hunger, and malnutrition. If children don’t have to go to school hungry, they can concentrate and study better. When social workers knock on the door of an elderly couple to deliver food, they’re able to assess their health.

Different in Hungary

Unlike in other countries, where food banks are usually established in regions or even towns, there’s only one food bank in Hungary at the moment. This is because the food processing industry is centralized, and there are few large-scale food processors and traders in the country.

As a result, the Hungarian Food Bank Association prefers to distribute the saved food immediately through its networks of smaller local charities, and it stores less. It maintains just one food rescue warehouse or “pantry” in Budapest, to which some manufacturers deliver. “We’re keen to open more,” Nagygyörgy said, “but it’s a slow process.”

Last summer, Nagygyörgy and his colleagues noticed that the number of people needing their services had increased dramatically. But it had also become more difficult to feed them.

“In many places, people who had previously volunteered as helpers were queuing for food themselves,” Nagygyörgy said. “At the same time, local organizations that help the needy by collecting and distributing surplus food from individual stores were struggling because skyrocketing fuel and energy costs had made it even more expensive to rescue food.”

As if this wasn’t challenging enough, retailers who had to pay closer attention to their own losses were managing stock more carefully. There was less food to give to charities such as the Hungarian Food Bank Association.

The Food Bank responded rapidly to the crisis. It began to call at 225 more stores every day, increasing the total number to 630. The amount of food donated has increased by 10%, and the value of donations has risen to HUF 10 billion.

The Hungarian Food Bank Association works with eight of the largest retail chains. An additional 100 food companies make food donations every year. Increasingly, people from companies outside the food industry are beginning to recognize the part they can play in the food rescue system and volunteering to participate in cookouts.

Food Waste Teambuilding

But there’s still plenty more business can do to help, and the Food Bank is encouraging this through an innovative approach.

“We organize exciting cooperation programs for these companies. For example, we do team-building cooking and baking events and attitude-shaping programs about food loss and waste issues,” Nagygyörgy explains.

“We’ve developed a pop-up treasure hunt game with a food waste theme used at company events. We cater conferences and gala dinners where all the food we prepare and serve uses a waste-free approach and technology. All the leftovers go to people in need. The funds we raise go to food rescue,” he explains.

The next step for the Food Bank is to save ready-to-serve cooked meals from restaurants, canteens and events. Nagygyörgy is keen to hear from office canteens open to starting such projects.

Asked how companies can do more to help, Nagygyörgy is clear. “We’d like companies to realize that supporting food donations is the most effective way to help people in need. Make a HUF 1 million donation to us, and we can deliver HUF 30 mln of food.”

In general, individuals can support the Hungarian Food Bank Association by making micro-donations or through volunteerism. For example, drivers with spare time could drive for the organization on weekday mornings. Anyone can come along to the Budapest warehouse to prepare 50,000 cans of vegetables for donation.

On May 12-13 of this year, the Food Bank will organize a non-perishable food collection initiative where anyone can donate food. Last November, 6,900 volunteers helped to collect 241 tonnes in three days. The May campaign will extend to more than 200 stores.

Right now, Nagygyörgy is simply keen for people to spread the word. “Tell your bosses about us,” he told me. “Encourage your colleagues to volunteer as a company team.”

Find out how you can help at www.elelmiszerbank.hu

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of March 10, 2023.

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