Good food depends on your wallet, and poorer people suffer as a result. Parts of the SPD have recognized the problem. But little is changing.

Market stall with fruit and vegetables

Healthy food: not affordable for everyone Photo: Zoonar/imago

BERLIN taz | One would like to know what Hubertus Heil thinks about this. In a legal opinion commissioned by the Left Party in the Bundestag, lawyers accuse the state of nothing less than a human rights violation. Several studies have recently calculated that the amount of money included in the citizen’s allowance for food is too low to provide a healthy diet. The Hamburg law firm Günther, which was commissioned by the Left Party, considers this to be contrary to international law.

Their argument: According to the UN Social Covenant, Germany must guarantee its citizens that their food budget is not only enough to eat enough, but also enough to buy nutrient-rich products, lots of fruit and vegetables. The Citizen’s Allowance does not do this and thus violates the human right to adequate food. But apparently this is not an issue for the Federal Minister of Social Affairs.

“The BMAS rejects this argument and the conclusions,” a spokeswoman for Heil said in response to a taz query. The citizen’s allowance is paid out as a flat rate, so it is “impermissible” to calculate how much is available for food purchases. How people divide the money is up to them. If no amount is defined for food, no one can say whether it is enough or not.

A year ago, it was not the Minister of Social Affairs, but the Green Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture Cem Özdemir, who was the first member of a federal government to recognize food poverty as a problem. Does Heil, who is also deputy head of the federal SPD, share this view? His spokeswoman did not answer this question. As early as 2020, the Scientific Advisory Board of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, which was then still led by the CDU, had complained that Hartz IV promoted malnutrition and thus irreversibly endangered the healthy development of children.

Higher social benefits, but also higher prices

Since then, social benefits have risen, but food prices have risen even more. In her response to a question from a Green MP in 2021, Heil’s Parliamentary State Secretary Kerstin Griese (SPD) replied: There is no record of how much a healthy diet costs – so a healthy diet cannot be taken into account as a goal in the standard rate.

This cool attitude has a long tradition: food poverty is a blind spot for the SPD, especially when it comes to money. Even Franz Müntefering, who during his SPD career has been party and parliamentary group leader, caused consternation in a meeting in 2006 with a quote from the Social Democrat August Bebel: “Only those who work should eat.” At the time, Müntefering was Federal Minister of Social Affairs.

Under Heil’s leadership, the ministry has brushed off criticism, usually by pointing out that it is not possible to calculate how much money is intended for food from social benefits. The Left’s experts vehemently disagree with this. Initially, an amount for food was included in the standard rate, calculated on the basis of the real expenditure of low-income households in 2018.

Since then, Hartz IV and citizen’s allowance have been increased several times without new statistical data on food expenditure. However, if the original amount were extrapolated in relation to the total increases, an adult would have had around 5.73 euros a day for food and drinks in 2023, and since January 2024 it has been around 6.42 euros – too little for a healthy diet.

The lawyers already consider the methodology to be in breach of human rights: it is based on the actual consumer spending of low-income groups, but does not care about how much money is actually needed for a healthy life. If people receiving the citizen’s allowance were to spend more than 5.73 euros a day on food, they argue that there would be a lack of money in other areas relevant to fundamental rights.

Ministry: Cost estimation “not feasible”

But it is by no means the case that the SPD is ignoring the issue. At the end of 2020, when the grand coalition was still in power, the Bundestag faction passed a position paper entitled “Combating food poverty in Germany”. It contains almost every conceivable demand, from reducing sugar to healthy school meals. But it leaves out one idea: that the poorer part of society might lack the money to be able to afford healthy food at all.

In order to take the real need for social benefits into account, experts would have to create a “basket of goods” based on a “nutrition plan” and determine its costs, explains spokeswoman Heils. Because this requires a “large number of normative provisions”, it is “not feasible” from the ministry’s point of view. The logic behind this: If the standard rate is only a “statistical value” that “has no connection whatsoever to individual goods and services”, there is no need to consider what type of diet the money will ultimately cover.

Cem Özdemir has promised to make social aspects a core issue in the planned nutrition strategy of the traffic light coalition. But he will apparently not be able to get much more than an appeal for better data collection on food poverty through. This is down to the FDP, which would have been the first to make cuts to the citizens’ allowance after the Federal Constitutional Court’s budget ruling. But it is also down to the SPD, where no one has yet brought the issue of food poverty together with the question of money.

Maybe that is slowly changing. Should social benefits be enough to ensure a healthy diet? “Yes, of course I see it that way,” says SPD MP Peggy Schierenbeck. The issue is important to nutrition politicians: “It is a question of social justice that all children can eat healthily,” she told taz. However, it is not just about financial opportunities, but also about people actually adopting a healthy diet. Schierenbeck is convinced that the political framework for this is now further ahead than ever before: the coalition is preparing advertising regulations for unhealthy foods and project funding for healthy school meals.

Left Party report aims to provide impetus

And the money? “Of course we have to talk about money too.” To do this, it is necessary to approach the social policy makers in the parliamentary group. “I will do that,” announces Schierenbeck. One person she would find open-minded is SPD MP Takis Mehmet Ali. “I don’t have the feeling that the topic has been discussed much so far,” he says. He has been a member of the Bundestag for two years, and right at the start of the legislative period he advocated a different method for calculating the standard rates. “But that didn’t have a majority,” says Mehmet Ali. He would prefer that social policy was fundamentally based on sustainability criteria.

Is it because of the costs and the difficult debates about past increases that material food poverty is being avoided? It’s possible, the Lörrach MP suspects. “But we have to discuss it at some point.” He hopes that the issue could be brought into the parliamentary process via the Petitions Committee. The Left Party’s report may also provide an impetus. Mehmet Ali sees it differently than Heil: “I think the report is good.”