Untouched by the festive season

During the festive season, more Swiss are letting others do the driving Keystone

Many Swiss shop for food at Christmas as though they were stocking up for war. At one time, the unsold produce would have been discarded once it had passed its sell-by-date. That was before Anja Hubner founded the charity "Tischlein deck Dich".

This content was published on December 22, 2000 minutes

After the festive season, Tischlein (which means tablecloth) will collect food being discarded by supermarkets and redistribute it to people in need - as it does every week of the year.

Some rely on the service to supplement a meagre income; others because they are too proud to turn to the social services for help.

On one December morning, a crowd of about 30 people, mainly women clinging to empty shopping bags, turned out to meet the charity's lorry laden with food and vegetables as it pulled into the distribution centre in Oerlikon, near Zurich.

They had been directed to the charity by local churches, which had informed Hubner, that they needed the extra help.

The sight of people queuing for free groceries is a rare sight in Switzerland, but their need is common enough to keep Hubner busy. Two years after setting up Tischlein, she supervises the collection and distribution of food in Oerlikon and other locations in Zurich, St Gallen and Bern.

"People in Switzerland are rich in comparison to Africa and developing countries," Hubner told swissinfo. "But there are different pressures here in Switzerland, which come from society."

Tischlein is supported by the Bon Appétit group, which runs supermarkets and food wholesalers across Switzerland. Hubner approached the company when she found out that a lot of food, close to its sell-by-date, was being thrown away.

Since then, with the aid of Bon Appétit staff and her own team of helpers, she has been organising weekly handouts to those in need.

"For the company it's a really good deal as they don't have to throw the food away. That would cost them money, and no one likes to throw food away," said Hubner. "For the other people they can take the food, so it's just a very good deal."

Among those waiting for groceries in Oerlikon was an Iraqi woman who recently moved to Switzerland. She said the service provided by Tischlein helped to make ends meet.

"The state money is not enough, it is so little. Everything here is so expensive," she explained.

Hubner said her charity had never had difficulty gaining support from the business community, but had a colder welcome from the social services.

"For the social department and the City of Zurich, it was hard to get their support," explained Hubner. "They think they can do everything and they don't want anyone else to help."

Although Switzerland's welfare support system is highly developed, some still fall through the net. Hubner says people may be too proud to ask for social security money, or do not go to the authorities because of their personal circumstances.

"One woman who comes here tries to feed and clothe her five children on SFr50 per week," said Hubner. "But she can't ask the social security for money because her husband who works is spending most of their money on alcohol and she's afraid if she goes to the state he'll lose his job, they'll lose their home and her marriage will crumble."

As the lorry loads up to head to the next distribution centre near Zurich's Limmatplatz, Anja says another 50 or more women will be waiting there for provisions.

Their bags filled, the ladies in Oerlikon wander off. Most of them will be back next week, and the week after that and the week after that.

by Tom O'Brien

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