German pensioner Gabriele Vachach queues to fill her cart with 50-cent bags of carrots, expired yoghurts and bouquets of withered flowers.

With the cost of living skyrocketing across Europe, the 65-year-old retired salesman is one of many Germans turning to food banks to make ends meet.

“Sometimes I walk home from the store almost in tears because I can’t afford it anymore,” she told AFP at a stall in Bernau, near Berlin.

The food bank, located in an alleyway behind a large chain supermarket, sells groceries donated by supermarkets and cheap prepared meals at heavily discounted prices.

Here, customers can pick up a full food cart for about 30 euros (about $32).

For Washah, that means bread, butter, and her favorite sandwich topping, sausage, “which used to cost 99 cents ($1.02) but now sometimes costs more than two euros.”

Due to the war in Ukraine, inflation in Germany jumped to 7.9% in May, the highest level since reunification in 1990, with food prices hit the hardest.

Demand for food banks across the country has increased “significantly” since the start of the year, and has doubled in some areas, according to a spokesperson for the Tafel food bank network.

There are about 1,000 such schemes in Germany, run by volunteers and available to clients on a means-tested basis.

The products, although donated, are still sold rather than given away to customers for free, as Tafel has to cover running costs, including rent and electricity. The organization also had to raise prices because their running costs had risen.

“It’s not just one product,” said retired Peter Behme, 69. “All prices go up.”

– Poverty line –

In an effort to ease the pressure on tight finances, the government cut fuel taxes, drastically cut the cost of public transport and promised all taxpayers a one-time payment of 300 euros.

But Boehme is not impressed. “I don’t know where government aid is going,” he said.

Even the food banks themselves are feeling the effects of massive inflation.

“We had to raise some prices by 20 or 50 cents because we need money to replenish our stocks,” said Malina Yankov, food bank manager at Bernau.

Along with pensioners and the unemployed, the queues are now filled with Ukrainian refugees.

Anna Dec, a 35-year-old hospital worker, came to Bernau with two Ukrainian women who live in her house and currently earn 449 euros a month.

“They have to pay for water, energy, food, hygiene products… It’s almost nothing,” she said.

Overwhelmed by the influx of customers, some food banks in Germany have had to turn away new arrivals or ration the food they hand out.

“We have been asking the government for a long time to pass a law to force supermarkets to give away unsold food,” said Norbert Weich, 72, a food bank chairman.

According to a study by the charity Deutscher Paritaetische Gesamtverband published in December 2021, about 16 percent of Germans, or more than 13 million people, were living below the poverty line in 2020.

“The federation of food banks has a resolution: as soon as we are no longer needed, we will disband,” Weich said. “But I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime.

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