Shop for free at Taiwan's food banks

Shop for free at Taiwan's food banks

Mr Lin Wan, 58, went shopping at a supermarket for the first time in a long time just over a week ago.

Pushing a small trolley, he picked up packs of dried noodles, a tin of milk powder, a large bag of oatmeal drink mix, a few packs of tidbits - and walked out without paying a cent. It was Mr Lin's first visit to the Taichung City Food Bank, which opened in August last year as the first facility in Taiwan where the needy can pick up free groceries and toiletries.

Mr Lin, a divorcee and former carpenter, has suffered from kidney problems for the past 15 years and can work only odd jobs.

He has survived on welfare assistance for the past six years. "Very good, very good," Mr Lin nodded when asked about his "shopping" trip at the 330 sq m food bank. Run like a mini supermarket, it has separate sections for various types of supplies, from salt to sanitary pads, and is equipped with donated trolleys and a "checkout" counter manned by volunteers.

Every last Saturday of the month, up to 300 beneficiaries like Mr Lin visit the store on the seventh floor of No.1 Square, an ageing mall about a 10-minute walk from the train station in Taichung, central Taiwan. Here they "buy" supplies using points allocated to them - between 1,000 and 2,000 points based on the size of their households - by the Taichung branch of the Red Cross Society, which runs the food bank in collaboration with the Taichung city government.

All items in the store are donated by corporations or the general public and are "priced" in points. A large bottle of cooking oil, for example, costs 160 points.

Canned food is 35 points a piece. "It's a more dignified, humanised way of helping as beneficiaries don't feel so much like they are receiving handouts," said Mr Jeff Chen, director of the Taichung Red Cross, comparing the supermarket concept to the usual practice of sending prepacked supplies to needy households.

Food banks originated in the United States in the 1960s and are now found in Britain, Australia, Europe, and, in recent years, Africa and Asia. A central warehouse usually receives and stores donations of foodstuff, which is then redistributed to welfare organisations, which then pass the supplies to beneficiaries.

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