The food lines, which still exist in Finland, remind us of the traditional poor relief and its charity mindedness. As such, they do not solve the root causes of poverty, but lead to a sense of shame, a negative identity and further problems, according to a recent dissertation by Tumo Laihiala.

Mr Laihiala states that nearly 35 percent of the participants experienced shame when resorting to food lines. Women, middle-aged men, senior citizens, those with higher education and those who queued for food for their relatives experienced shame more often than others.

Over the last 25 years, thousands of Finns have received immediate relief from food lines. Despite good intentions, the food lines organized by NGOs and parishes were run independently of local communities or social, health and employment services. The root causes of depending on food lines has not been resolved due to this lack of cooperation.

In Finland, the modern food lines were first established in Tampere during the 90’s recession, which struck Finland hard. As the hall of the local diaconia center became crowded with people with urgent needs, the then Head of Diaconia Antti Lemmetyinen decided to act. Parishes and NGOs all over Finland followed suit. In the beginning, distribution of food items through food lines was thought to be a short phenomenon.

In turn, as the Head of Diaconia in Tampere in 2008, we decided to reform the food distribution as reliance on our food relief continued to climb. The distribution of food parcels was developed into a Food Bus service which gave access to food relief on its route without the need to wait in line. Recently there have been new models developed for food distribution which would better incorporate social services and would reduce food waste. The most advanced model is the Shared Table in Vantaa, which includes the Municipality of Vantaa, a number of its parishes and 20 NGOs. The Finnish Commerce Federation and SITRA work as further partners.

The Shared Table has paired food distribution with community building. This has been facilitated with the CABLE-approach developed by Helsinki Deaconess Institute and Diaconia University of Applied Sciences. Its aim is to build communities which foster trust between people and in the society. The sense of shame related to food lines is alleviated as trust is established and life becomes furthermore meaningful. In Helsinki Deaconess Institute we believe that lining for food distribution is not dignifying and it does not support people’s inclusion or agency in society. Food lines maintain the beneficiaries’ passivity and social problems.

Together with several cities and stakeholders we are currently creating locally adaptable and integrated services for food relief. This includes social and employment services, diaconal work, third sector and volunteer services. They focus on timely service referrals, logistics of food items, volunteer activities and eating together. The objective is that of those receiving food assistance as many as possible have found an active role in a relevant community. In this way the sense of belonging, agency and trust are strengthened.

Instead of food lines there should be communities which would place hope and trust where they are most needed.


Matti Helin 

Director of Diaconia at Helsinki Deaconess Institute 


Helsinki Deaconess Institute is a public utility foundation and a multifaceted social enterprise group with several subsidiaries. The group provides wide-ranging social welfare, health care and education services. The proceeds from the group’s operations and assets are used to promote health and well-being and to build a more just society.

Helsinki Deaconess Institute offers child and youth welfare services, housing and employment support, substance abuse services, mental health programmes, and educational services. Helsinki Deaconess Institute also engages in development cooperation. In addition to service production, all of the Institute’s operations promote civic activity.

Helsinki Deaconess Institute was founded in 1867.