Food aid in Finland: Learning from a Nordic Welfare State

Mary Anne MacLeod, Research Officer at the Poverty Alliance and PhD student at Glasgow University.

In Scotland we often look to Scandinavian countries to learn how we might do things better. World-leading education systems; the highest levels of gender equality; among the happiest places to live in the world – in many ways our Nordic neighbours serve as important role models on how to organise ourselves. Finland’s provision of universal school meals, from pre-school to 18, is a source of great national pride and also considered to be a factor in what makes their education system so successful. The Finnish ‘baby box’ initiative recently introduced here is an example of the Nordic commitment to the early years and child development which Scotland appears to be looking to take inspiration from.

And yet this impression of a progressive, inclusive society stands in sharp contrast to scenes I encountered on my recent visit to Finland. Long queues of people waiting for several hours for a few items of food otherwise destined for landfill. The sights and smells of this Helsinki ‘breadline’ made me think of my experience volunteering on Lesbos last year. Volunteers coordinating a long line of people to receive some small amount of donated food – a scene from a refugee camp on the streets of Helsinki.

Helsinki’s ‘breadlines’ have become the ubiquitous symbol for poverty in Finland. The phenomenon started 20 years ago at a time of huge economic recession which included the fall of the Finnish mobile giant Nokia, taking with it significant numbers of jobs. Unemployment rates sky-rocketed; growing from 3% in 1989 to almost 20% 4 years later. At that time Church groups began organising the provision of food aid, taking inspiration from models already functioning elsewhere in Europe. The Church intended that food aid in Finland would be a temporary measure to meet immediate needs and to act as a protest against the perceived failures on the part of the Government to provide people with adequate support. The appearance of breadlines in the capital was certainly a shock to Finns who, through the ‘golden years’ of the welfare state of the 70s and 80s, had considered the Church-run soup kitchens of the Poor Law era to have been banished to history. Yet despite periods of economic growth since the ‘great depression’ of the early 90s Finland’s breadlines have continued. The long lines of people queuing for food have become an accepted feature of everyday life in Helsinki. After 20 years the initial public outrage and motivation to seek solutions has all but vanished. The issue is largely absent from policy or political debate, media interest in the once sensational images of the breadlines has largely worn off. In Finland, a country so revered for much of its social policy, there is generally an uncritical acceptance that food aid is here to stay.

During my visit I interviewed a number of individuals who had been key players in the initial establishment of food aid provision in Finland. Their reflections on how its role has developed perhaps provide some important lessons for Scotland. They spoke about the huge challenge of dismantling a system of aid once it has been put in place; the attractiveness of charitable models to those who would look to privatise services and lower taxes; the diminishing of support for the welfare state which occurs when universalism within the system is weakened. As we consider what a Scottish social security system might look like, we need to think carefully about the expanding role of charity food aid within our current system and consider how we might want things to work differently in the future. Important learning can be taken from countries such as Finland which we already look to emulate, yet perhaps in this case about we might learn how not to do things.

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19 comments

  1. Tuloksetonta

    You have been misinformed.
    The unemployed are forced to go breadline to pick up for sale unfit food, because 9,40 – 18,13 euroa isn’t enough money for food, clothing, shoes, personal hygiene products, detergents,
    and everything else costs, which that amount should be enough.

  2. Harri Ollanketo

    verry good blogand must say that i hope scottish people do realize these things and dont bellive all the bulls… what people belive of finland. Modern day finland is faar from been a great plaze to life. Thats why i am leaving it next week and guess where im coming? To Scotland! 😀 Hopefully i will find work from there and will be able to stay there and life there. 🙂

    • Sara

      The problem of food aid in the UK is no better. People waiting 3+ months for benefits to approved, literally with not a penny to their name. Being forced to turn off the fridge because its empty and they can’t afford the electric to keep it on anyway. Poverty and hunger is a problem in every country. In that sense the grass is not greener anywhere you turn to. Its just another set of problems and more frustrating dead ends. Scotland has a massive drugs problem for example, it was once labeled as the drugs capital of Europe.

  3. Harri Ollanketo

    verry good blog. And i hope scottich people dont belive all the bulls…. what people think about finland been a great place to life. Modenr day finland is faar from been somekind of a dreamland to life. greedynes of the coverment and certain small elite groub is tearing this gountry appart and has been doing that for a long time. Thats why im leaving it next week and guess where im heading? To scotland! 😀 Hopefully i will find work from there and can stay there and life there and start a good new life there. Since in here it really isnt possible anymore.

  4. Markku Ahdeoja

    We have corruption problem also. Finland is one of the less corrupted country in the world. Truth is something else. Our justice system is rotten. We don´t fight against corruption and we call it good brotherhood system. I got 5 month jail sentences because I fight against corruption in Finland. I got 7 month more because I was´t silence for police corruption.

    Markku Ahdeoja
    Finnish human right activist

  5. Jani

    The politicians know what they are doing. This was done on purpose.
    Not only in Helsinki, but also in smaller towns breadlines can be found.

    The newspapers not reporting is due to their policy of not reporting negative issues. On paper, the welfare system works but stops working when tried on practice. Social offices are supposed to give out money for the less fortunate, but to many, they do not. Newspapers do not report this at all. Breadlines are reported couple of times a year. Politicians, with their connections, are telling there are shortages of labor – even in towns with more than 20 percent unemployment. Half the unemployment is not recorded. Only 1/10 of the homeless are listed as homeless.

    Money is spent as before, but more privatization has driven costs up. Politicians sit in the same saunas with those who end up getting the contracts.

    The church, too, is political.
    Soup kitchen never disappeared, Salvation army had theirs’ even during the good times, but breadlines outside are something newer.

  6. Holger huuri

    This is not happening only in Helsinki, other cities have same poor peoples to lining food ! One reason is that certain taxes are huge, like tax of electricity, tax of cars, tax of bensin, tax of heating ……
    Clean country but shit Government, liers and stealing “legally” tax money !!!

    • The Poverty Alliance

      I’m afraid this is not the ‘hard lesson’. Finland, like Scotland, is a wealthy country, and can well afford to provide support for migrants. Issues of poverty and food insecurity pre-date the current crisis. The solutions lie, ultimately, in a more equitable distribution of resources, which is partly achieved through a decent welfare system. Blaming migrants for the failure of the welfare system is entirely incorrect, whether in Finland or the UK.

    • Isämmaam miehet täälläkin itkevät

      Again some persuminded “close the borders” useful idiot spouting bullshit rhetoric, and blaming this on immigrants.
      But as you see, even with the once great education system, we have large quantities of people being, scared into neo nazim, or “alt right” in modern day language.
      It boggles my mind how these individuals passed the school system in the first place.

      So stop saying useless nationalist propaganda and blame those who are responsible, the policians seeking personal benefits by making sure institutions look like they are ineficcient (using regulations) and then trying to privatise them to their personal buddies companies (who usually also lobby/pay for election costs)

      Really pisses me off when people are so simple minded that they cannot see the forest from the trees…

  7. Matias

    Yes, we have this “unofficial” corruption in Finland, and we call it “Brotherhood system” it is quite a big thing here, if you think about it and too much bureaucracy.

  8. Kristo Miettinen

    Beware the Fox Butterfield effect. When you write “And yet this impression of a progressive, inclusive society stands in sharp contrast to scenes I encountered on my recent visit to Finland” I feel it coming on.

    Finland’s problems are not in spite of its progressivism, they are because of it. The problems pre-date the breadlines; those are just today’s ephemera. Finland has always been a place where many yearn to emigrate and to which few yearn to immigrate. Today’s migrant situation is an anomaly in that respect, and an instructive one: even today, Germans, French, and Italians have no desire to move to Finland. Heck, even Swedes would never make the move.

    There is a deep spiritual malaise that comes with all of the equality and other busybody progressivism (the Finnish word “tasa-arvo” is literally equivalence rather than equality, but that is another discussion). Not that all of that equalitarianism is necessarily bad, but rather that if you choose to emulate it then you should do so eyes wide open: many of your fellow countrymen will be driven to leave (if they can), or to drink to excess (if they cannot leave). Equality comes at the price of a smothering soul-crushing uniformity of thought. The good news is that the rest of your countrymen (the ones who adapt) will be just fine.

    You can choose to believe the happiness studies, which say everything is peachy in Finland. Or you can take a look at the suicide and alcoholism statistics, which say otherwise. Which are you going to believe, the official rainbow studies of the academic elite or the actual conduct of real people? It depends, I suppose, on which group you expect to fall into: the suicides, or those who say to them “good riddance”.

  9. Anna

    “The phenomenon started 20 years ago at a time of huge economic recession which included the fall of the Finnish mobile giant Nokia, ” This is inaccurate: Nokia (Mobile Phones) didn’t fall 20 years ago but only recently. And there’s still actually the networks side of the Nokia business left, during the years it’s been called Nokia Networks, Nokia Siemens Networks and now it’s Nokia once again. There are also plans for new Nokia phones to be launched in 2017.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_1990s_Depression_in_Finland

    http://www.gsmarena.com/the_rise_dominance_and_epic_fall__a_brief_look_at_nokias_history-blog-13460.php

    As for the food aid, there are certainly people who need it but I happen to know some people who just can’t resist free food. Having said that, if leftover and unsaleable food can be given to the needy, that’s better than just throwing it away in the rubbish bin.

    • Mary Anne

      Thank you for highlighting this Anna, I should have been clear that the job losses caused specifically by changes to Nokia came later than the recession of the early 1990s. I will make an edit to the blog post.

      I agree that we need to reduce the amount of food which is wasted. However I believe this problem is best solved by addressing issues higher up the food production and supply process, rather than expecting people in poverty to use it up for us.

  10. Sara

    The media in Finland often report about breadlines. The style of journalism here is something different from the UK, they dont go for the hard sell and sensationalism. The issue is certainly not something the Finnish people are accepting off, if anything many still expect the concept of the welfare state to step in and work as it should do. Are you aware for example that Finland is the only Nordic country to accept EU food aid? This certainly does not comply with the foundations of a welfare state.

    Check other media sources and you will find shocking videos from the general public of the lengthy queues. People are not accepting of this situation, this is not a socially acceptable way for people to survive. People are queuing for food through lack of options and desperation. Would you like to stand for hours in the middle of a harsh Finnish winter? Its pensioners, families, students, unemployed. No one wants to be there, no one wants to have to provide that help but unfortunately its needed at the moment and little can be done until the government get their act together, step in and do their job.

    Finnish people are most certainly not accepting that food aid is here to stay. But its a real kick when you realise your own government can’t see past their own holiday entitlement to put its people first and give them back their dignity,

    • Mary Anne

      Thank you very much for your comments, Sara. Your perspective is one I heard from many people I met while I was in Finland.

  11. Olli

    Some people really need that bread but the interviews of people who go to those breadlines reveal that they go there because of loneliness and the breadline is the only place where they meet other people…. So the loneliness of old people is the big problem.

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