Hartz IV recipient Matthias Handel is a customer of the Essener Tafel. Once he had a good life, now he is dependent on food donations – like more than two million people nationwide. The horror inflation is driving more and more Germans into poverty.

Essen, Steeler Str. 137, at eight in the morning. The doors of the food bank, where people in need can pick up groceries, will only open in two hours. But Matthias Handel is already wrapped up in the cold and waiting.

Handel is 50 years old, lives on Hartz IV, lives with his mother. He used to have a good life with a secure job cleaning buildings. Then he got sick. Since then he has been unemployable.

“When you work, you don’t give a damn about the money,” says the man from the Ruhr area. He used to be out and about with friends and easily spent 1,000 marks on a weekend. Now he’s glad he can go to the blackboard. “You really get a lot here for one and a half euros a week, I couldn’t afford that otherwise.”

Last rescue table: Matthias Handel is one of 5,500 men, women and children who are cared for by the table in Essen. He belongs to the army of welfare recipients, pensioners, low earners, single parents, refugees and asylum seekers who belong to the poor in Germany. A group whose already precarious situation has continued to deteriorate in recent months.

In times of horrific inflation and the Ukraine crisis, more and more people are having to struggle to make ends meet. The need in the country is increasing. It’s no longer just the unemployed who come to the Tafel. Working people are also knocking on the door, whose small wages are not enough due to the wave of inflation.

The 960 food banks throughout Germany can hardly cope with the rush. More than two million people are now dependent on food donations. A number of institutions have already had to impose admission freezes – including in Essen. Tafel boss Jörg Sartor: “On July 1, we gave 124 of the 128 free places to refugees from Ukraine. With that, the table was full to the brim.”

Actually it’s a shame. A shame for our country, which is one of the richest in the world. And a shame for those in government who do not manage to save people from falling into poverty and need for help.

Germany is a modern welfare state, they say. But anyone who sees the long queue in front of the table in Essen must doubt it. Shortly before ten o’clock there are more than 40 pensioners, young mothers, families from the Ukraine, but also Arab men and women.

Hard-working Tafel employees collected the groceries that customers can pick up here early in the morning. For example at a discounter in the south of the city.

When the Tafel people roll up to the back entrance in their white van, boxes with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, bananas, bread and Milka bars are already waiting there. Rudolf Schwichtenberg and Uwe Riegert check the goods and sort them out. “We only take what we would eat ourselves,” says Riegert. They call their important job “hunting prey”.

Rudolf Schwichtenberg has been collecting food for the table on a voluntary basis for four years. It was always good for him, he says. “Here I want to give something back to society.” At the end of their tour, the yield is great, in the trunk of the car boxes full of groceries are stacked. The items are then distributed. The Essener Tafel not only supplies its own location, but also church institutions, sister associations and soup kitchens.

Once a week people who receive Hartz IV, basic security or housing benefit can come to Steeler Str. 137 and pick up groceries. The day and the exact time are noted on their authorization cards. If you only have to look after yourself, you get a little less than families with children.

In principle, the output runs without major problems. Only sometimes there are minor frictions. “Unfortunately, that’s only available for two or more people,” explains Tafel helper Michaela Müller to a woman who points to a box containing two pomegranates, a pumpkin and two avocados. According to her authorization card, the woman with the headscarf is alone. That’s why she only gets small amounts.

“You have to be able to say no sometimes,” explains helper Müller, who works full-time as a nurse. “But I don’t get to talk to people there. That’s why I get it from volunteering,” she says.

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Waiting at the exit of the table is the Ukrainian Viktoria Watschenko, blonde, tight jeans, suede jacket, heavy make-up. A bag with groceries is leaning against her feet, bananas and grapes are looking out.

Like hundreds of thousands of her fellow countrymen, she fled her homeland from warmonger Putin in the spring. The 45-year-old speaks neither German nor English, but you can communicate with her via a voice app. “I’m grateful for the great help,” says the woman, who has been with the Tafel for six months. “The groceries are for me and my 14-year-old son.”

The vast majority of table customers have understanding and sympathy for the situation of the Ukrainians. But sometimes there is also stress.

Tawny Pawelke is the mother of two children. The 32-year-old – hair dyed dark red, nose ring, piercing in her lower lip – sometimes feels ignored by the Ukrainian refugees. “They push one another, even though they are assigned at different times, and stand together in small groups. We’re in the same boat at the blackboard, I’ve been standing in line here for an hour,” the everyday helper for seniors gets upset.

But it’s her turn too and she doesn’t have to go home empty-handed. “I get food here that I couldn’t afford otherwise. It’s priceless,” she says. Today she packs some vegetables, fruit and chicken in her bag. And as a Christmas present, there’s even a 30-euro voucher for Aldi.

But that’s not all: one of the 70 volunteer helpers offers her the last bouquet of the day, yellow roses. “I used to be late when flowers were distributed,” says the woman happily and leaves.

In Essen it becomes clear: Without the panels, hundreds of thousands of people in Germany would be much worse off than they are anyway. The distributors of food donations have to contend with increasing problems themselves, such as the consequences of the energy crisis. “We have 10,000 euros more in costs for heating and fuel,” complains Tafel boss Jörg Sartor.

But even in hard times like these, the 66-year-old refuses certain help.

The Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder (CSU) recently announced that the state government would support the Münchner Tafel with 25,000 euros for food purchases. According to Söder, funding of one million euros is available for the 170 food banks in the Free State.

The Essen table boss would reject such donations. The state shouldn’t shirk its responsibilities with such gifts of money, he says. “Because the state itself is responsible for the food supply.”