Ahead of the Dutch election, food banks are highlighting the cost of living crisis, a major campaign theme

VORBURG, Netherlands — Canned fish, jars of pasta sauce and bags of beans are stacked in blue crates. Meat, dairy and bread are kept cold in a huge freezer and built-in fridge in this wealthy Dutch city. Supplies are available to feed the new poor in one of the richest nations in the world.

If it gets worse, “then it really becomes a public scandal,” said Rob Kuipers, a 70-year-old retired senior civil servant who is chairman of the local food bank in Leidschendam-Voorburg, an easy bike ride from parliament in The Hague.

The cost-of-living crisis, chronic shortages of social and affordable housing and restrictions on access to affordable healthcare have combined to become known as the catch-all headline of ‘security of existence’ in the election campaign, and it’s a theme that all parties are addressing in their election programs.

“We’ve had people living in poverty for a long time, but it’s always been relatively a smaller group and quite a marginal group, and now it’s spread into the lower middle class. And I think that’s why we’re talking about it so much now,” said Maurice Krull, professor of sociology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

“This has always been a topic that progressive or left-wing parties put on the agenda,” he added. “But now you see that also the populist right-wing parties and the middle party are also putting this on the agenda. “

This centrist “middle party” is personified by Pieter Omzigt, a former Christian Democrat who created the New Social Contract in the summer. It is already so high that he will play a key role in coalition talks once the votes are counted.

After years of campaigning for marginalized members of society and exposing government scandals, tackling poverty is one of his two main campaign themes.

“There is a long list of things we need to do to address the cost of living crisis,” he told reporters on the campaign trail. “We will make the basic necessities of life affordable,” his party’s manifesto said, with measures including reforming tax and welfare rules to give people more disposable income.

Outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, or VVD — traditionally seen as the party of the rich and a supporter of a free market economy — also promises to help.

“To make sure people who work full-time can make ends meet, we will raise the minimum wage,” the party’s manifesto promises. “To tackle child poverty, we will provide targeted support to families with children.”

Underscoring how the issue cuts across traditional party lines, the centre-left bipartisan bloc led by former European Union climate chief Frans Timmermans is proposing some of the same solutions. He advocates raising the Dutch minimum wage to 16 euros ($17.40) an hour. For employees over the age of 21, the current minimum is €12.79 for a 36-hour work week.

For some workers and others living on welfare, this is not enough.

The national umbrella organization for 176 Dutch food banks says they serve a total of 38,000 households – 100,000 people – every week and that 1.2 million people live below the poverty line. The number is slightly lower than a year ago, when inflation rose in the Netherlands and around the world.

Just 18 months ago, the food bank in Leidschendam-Voorburg, a municipality of around 78,000 people that was recently ranked fifth in a survey of the most “livable” cities in the Netherlands, had 140 clients. That shot up to 250 as the cost-of-living crisis gripped the world and did not spare the wealthy Netherlands. Those 250 households total up to 700 people, Kuipers said.

The true number of people on the bread line may be much higher. The Leidschendam-Voorburg Kuipers Food Bank monitors estimates that the true number of people eligible for food aid could be two to three times higher.

Now he is waiting to see how the elections will play out and the new constellation of parties will join forces to rule the country.

The parties’ programs “are full of pretty words and relatively few concrete actions,” he said.

He looks to see “how these beautiful words will be translated into concrete actions” after the election.

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