News #10 | November/December 2009
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Interview with Isabel Jonet – President of the Portuguese Federation of Food Banks
Interview with Isabel Jonet – President of the Portuguese Federation of Food Banks
Susana Leal ( and Márcia Vila (
Subject: The Food Bank, the biggest voluntary operation organised in Portugal 

1. To start off with, we would like you to give us a brief outline of the development of the Food Bank in Portugal. 
The Food Bank started out in Portugal in 1992, due to the work of Captain José Vaz Pinto, who imported the idea from France, where it had been inspired by a project that started in the USA in the sixties, and was then called “second harvest”. The “second harvest” is a right that exists in the US Constitution, in which the poor have the right to collect everything that the reapers do not collect; that is, they have the right to glean. This is the inspiration behind the idea of the Food Bank Against Famine: to go in search of excess (in food production, in agriculture, in distribution chains and others) in order to bring these things to the tables of those who have no means through a vast network of social solidarity institutions. We are often asked why we don’t give the products directly to the poor and we go through institutions. That is an imposed condition of this type of functioning; we don’t give directly because we don’t want to create dependence; what we want is to, on the one hand, take food to the tables of those who need it, but on the other hand make these people stop needing it. This can only be done with great affection, with close proximity from the institutions that, although centralised, know each person and each family.
At the moment in Portugal there are seventeen Food Banks ( that support about 1,650 social solidarity institutions, and contribute towards the feeding of about 267 thousand people; that is, about 2.5% of the Portuguese population with proven lack in food. These people have in some manner a foodstuff on their plates that comes from the Food Bank through an institution.
The Food Bank has this vocation and this mission. Why? Because food is different to any other consumer item; food is a part of life; it is the element of life. Last year the Food Bank distributed about 18 thousand tons of food; that is, a daily average of 80 tons of food.

2. What is the importance of volunteer workers in the Food Bank?
The life support of the Food Bank is volunteer work, and so what we do is to mobilize people who wish to give of their time, whatever it is, for this cause that they believe in. That’s why we have assiduous volunteers, who deal with the daily activities of the Food Bank, and we have the campaign volunteers who are only with us twice a year, at campaign weekends. The Food Bank involves about 27 thousand people in the 17 Banks, and is the biggest organised voluntary action in Portugal. 

3. The most recent data point towards an increase in the Food Bank’s activity in Portugal. How is the current economic crisis affecting the Food Bank’s activity?
This situation can be viewed from two positions: on the one hand by the volunteer section, which involves more and more people who wish to give up their time. That is easy to give and is the greatest gift. Besides this, we need gifts in money and in products in order for us to carry on with this activity, because the only thing we live off is the distribution of food products that are donated to us. In times of crisis there are fewer food products because there are fewer donations, and what we have to do is to make companies and people aware of the fact that they mustn’t give up precisely in these times of crisis. There is an effort on the part of the Food Bank in order to reach people and companies more, showing what we do and how we do it; one of the Food Bank’s best assets is precisely the idea of transparency; we publish everything we do, we have accounts for everything that is given to us. We believe that nothing is ours that everything is entrusted to us for us to give to those who need it. So it is fundamental for there to be that transparency in communication.

4. The fight against waste is something that is not rooted in our society. Do you think that transparency in giving out information and bringing more and more people to volunteer to the Food Bank might not be a generating factor for social change, making people aware of the importance of fighting waste?
In using volunteer workers we are using people who often can’t find a position on the work marketplace. In allowing these people to carry out functions in the Food Bank we are fighting against the wastage of manpower and talents, which are indispensable and extremely valuable resources. I feel that the Food Bank has been a driving force in the awakening of consciousness towards the need to fight against waste, particularly of food. When we waste food that so many human beings are deprived of we are committing an act of injustice; it is not fair to throw something that is essential to life for someone else away. What we have tried to do, through the project we have in schools, called “Educating towards Citizenship” (, is to take those values to young people who nowadays are at school or university and will be the future businesspeople, politicians and decision makers in this country. We try to make them be aware of active citizenship, of the struggle, of the need for justice, truth and sharing, so that in the future they make take those values into account when making decisions.

5. During the campaigns the volunteers and common citizens often ask us how the distribution chains for the Food Bank work. How are the goods retained for the people who need them?
We don’t give anything directly to people precisely so that we can accompany the course until the goods reach them. What we do is to choose the institutions that are enrolled. Each active Food Bank has a totally regional area; that is, the Lisbon Bank collects and distributes in Lisbon, the Coimbra Bank does so in Coimbra, and so on. This allows them to get to know who is receiving. When an institution is enrolled it goes through a whole selection and accompaniment process, and so it is subjected to a visit to its premises to see how it works and how it accompanies the families it supports. When the institution is accepted by the Board a protocol agreement is signed establishing rights and duties on both sides. The institutions, for example, commit themselves not to commercialise anything they receive from the food banks. The Food Bank commits itself to hand over the products that the institutions it supports need, in good conditions of food hygiene and safety. This is fundamental. All safety and hygiene precautions are taken because we are talking about people, people in need, who often suffer from all sorts of frailties, namely in the matter of their health. Poor people are not the rich people’s trash, and the products that the Food Bank distributes are within the legal imperatives of food hygiene and safety.

6. Public and private institutions participate in the Food Bank activities through volunteer actions. Is there any difference in the way they participate?
There are many public institutions that support the Food Bank, and do voluntary work. Nowadays we cannot make any kind of separation between the contribution from public institutions and private ones to the Food Bank. There are several different Food Banks that have agreements with the Ministry of Work and Social Security, for example. In the Lisbon Food Bank workers from the Ministry of Science and Technology work in the warehouse. 

7. Besides the campaigns for collecting food, how can people help the Food Bank in its actions?
I think that the best support that people can give is their time, and that is very important for us, even when we are not in campaign periods. People have become used to seeing the Food Bank against Hunger only twice a year; that is our image policy; we are only visible twice a year on the campaign weekends, and the last one was on the 28th and 29th of November. But the Food Banks live every day, because every day people need to be fed. It would be a great help if there was greater mobilization in order to have a little more volunteer work, even if this were only three or four hours per week at the Food Bank warehouses.

8. We would like you to tell us about other, more recent projects connected to the Food Bank. 
In 2004 we thought that we could do more for the institutions, not as a matter of helping out, but in terms of structuring and management. So we created “Entrajuda” ( “Entrajuda” is an institution that starts from the daily experience received at the Food Bank, but which intends to mobilise volunteers in order to somehow change the third sector (the social solidarity institutions), and help it become more efficient and more capable. If the social solidarity institutions and all the associations are more efficient in the improving of their human resources they will release more people for other tasks that are indispensable in helping each person, with more affection and more human warmth. If the institution spends less money on the repairing or acquiring of furniture or computers, through recourse to volunteers who can do this, this may affect budget spending for a social welfare assistant, for example. And so what we did was to launch “Entrajuda”, precisely aiming at helping institutions in their management and organisation. “Entrajuda” has launched a set of projects at the same time: first it was the “Volunteer Exchange” which is an Internet site ( that aims at bringing together the desires and needs of volunteer work. In its first year it had 10,900 people enrolled, over two hundred Portuguese institutions with volunteers “contracted” or volunteers accepted. In the “Volunteer Exchange” we launched the so-called “Talent Exchange”; that is, people could put their talent at work in an area they enjoyed.
After the “Volunteer Exchange” there is the “Donated Goods bank” ( which is a bank for non-foodstuffs. Every day we were given non-foodstuff products which, according to the statutes of the Food Bank, we could not receive, and so we opened this bank. In just two years we have distributed about six million articles that would be destined for destruction. We are talking about articles ranging from furniture, new clothes, toys, personal hygiene and cleaning products, etc. These products would mostly be destroyed simply because the packaging has changed or because they were not put on the market and there was nowhere to store them. This bank does not receive goods from individuals, only articles for babies, because the other products are new products from industry and from distribution chains.
More recently the “Equipments Bank” has been opened (, with the aim of collecting and distributing electric and electronic equipment that has a legislation of its own. This bank receives donations from individuals and what we do is give a new life to the equipment and place it at the service of the social solidarity institutions.
There is also another very important area in “Entrajuda” which is Professional training. There are training sessions that are for all the social solidarity technicians and heads, because if people are not taught to change they cannot do so in fact.
There is also one final area, which is that of “Health Solidarity”. This area has been spectacular, and what we do is mobilize professionals from several different medical specializations to give us a little of their time. For example, we mobilize dentists for them to receive children who are in need in their clinics without paying, children who are at the institutions we support. What we ask each dentist to do is to accept being an “Entrajuda” volunteer by treating the teeth of needy children.
More recently we have launched the project “Ready for School”, which has been supported by many companies and entities, such as the High Commission for Health. We intend to give eyes, ears and teeth checkups to all children at the age of five before they go to primary school; we want the children to be ready before they go to school.

9. Medicine students often try to bring the more human element of medicine into their curriculum, doing this in institutions that work outside Portugal. Do you think that these students could carry out activities within the several different projects that the Food Bank has?
Here we have an area called “University Solidarity”, which aims at a connection between the universities and the Food Bank projects, during the learning process. The Catholic University and the New University already do this for management and economics, so why not do this for health? I should mention that for the last three years we have had a partnership with the St. Vincent de Paul Higher School of Health, with the aim of giving the students training periods in social solidarity. These training periods allow the institutions to have the health professionals who can help change established practices and procedures that are often not the most suitable, namely in looking after older people. There is also a partnership with the Association for the Protection of Portuguese Diabetics, in which the association trains the technicians from the institutions or homes about how to look after diabetics. In this area there is scope for cooperation with the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon, which we would greatly appreciate. Professor Daniel Sampaio has already contacted us for some people in his training course (mental health) might come and see the daily activities of the Food Bank and the way volunteers with mental disturbances are received and integrated into our activities. 

10. Finally, what is the message that the Food Bank leaves for all its volunteers?
I give thanks to all those who are volunteers at the Food Bank and help in its campaigns, because without the volunteers the campaigns would not be possible. And for all those who are not volunteers I leave this plea for them to participate in a Food Bank campaign, because they are all necessary, all welcome. In participating in a Food Bank campaign people realise that their time can be important in someone else’s lives.

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