Wojciech Onyszkiewicz

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 1996
We Share What We Have Association / Stowarzyszenie Dzielimy Sie Tym, Co Mamy

Wojciech Onyszkiewicz stworzył unikalny system dystrybucji w banku żywności, który nie tylko pomaga ludziom potrzebującym w Polsce, ale także angażuje uczestników w procesie edukacji obywatelskiej, który jest przełamywaniem barier między społecznościami wiejskimi i miejskimi.

This description of Wojciech Onyszkiewicz's work was prepared when Wojciech Onyszkiewicz was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996 .


Wojciech Onyszkiewicz has created a unique food bank distribution system that not only helps Poland's needy people but also engages the participants in a civic education process that is breaking the barriers between rural and urban communities.

The New Idea

Wojciech Onyszkiewicz has a long involvement with the problem of food distribution in Poland, as he was the key organizer of the civic initiative to provide soup to the hungry during the tough winter of 1990. After that experience he searched for a more creative and sustainable food distribution system that could induce greater civic involvement and a higher level of understanding and participation. His research took him to France, where he studied the French food bank system, which is based on donations of shelf-expired bulk food products from large grocery companies or distributors.Wojciech has adapted the food bank system to maximize its impact in the Polish setting, both to feed hungry people and to nourish Poland's fledgling civil society. His decision to distribute fresh food elicits the participation of Poland's large farming population, and he offers them something in return that further cements the relationship between rural and urban Poles: the children of participating farmers are invited to go along on the distribution trips to Warsaw and other large urban centers, where they enjoy cultural exposures they would not otherwise have. He mobilizes support from restaurants and the business community in these cities because it is a public relations opportunity for them; he includes their participation in media coverage of his project. He has also established a special seal that participating merchants can display in their shops, which informs their customers about their contribution to the program and thus encourages Poland's new and growing consumer class to combine social concern with its purchasing power.

The Problem

The communist totalitarian regime officially denied the existence of poverty while it ruled Poland. Consequently, there were few mechanisms for the wide distribution of government surplus food. The few institutions that did exist were extremely bureaucratic and did not efficiently distribute food to families and individuals in need. With the social and economic upheaval of the post-1989 period, the need for a more comprehensive and efficient food distribution network has greatly increased. An estimated twenty percent of Poland's 40 million people live below the poverty line, 31 percent of which are multi-child families. Children below the age of fifteen make up one-third of the population living in poverty, and fifteen percent of children come hungry to school each day, having had no breakfast.

Because of declining revenues and increased demand on social services the government has been unable to address the increasing problem of hunger among poor families. Various government agencies and nongovernmental organizations have attempted to establish programs, but they lack sufficient funding and supplies. The produce and foodstuffs they distribute are of extremely poor quality and are often close to spoiling by the time they are distributed.

The Strategy

Recognizing that a new approach was needed for the problem of hunger in Poland, Wojciech founded his first food bank in 1994. Since then he has been working to perfect his strategy of developing support in the rural regions of Poland. He begins his work in a village by making contact with school teachers, religious leaders and village officials. These people are typically more accustomed to the idea of social activism than most rural people–who tend to be conservative. With help from this vanguard, Wojciech proceeds to build wide support from the entire community.

The children from these rural communities, in exchange for the donations received, are invited to participate in trips to large cities such as Warsaw or Krakow to assist in the distribution of the food to citizens' organizations, charities and government-run shelters. During their excursions, the children also attend cultural events, sessions of parliament and other activities exclusively found in large cities. These organized events are a great incentive to the rural participants, who cannot usually afford to travel to the capitol or other urban centers. In 1995 more than 6,000 children visited Warsaw through Wojciech's program and in 1996 more than 10,000 children visited Warsaw through the program.

Wojciech has also developed a well-publicized marketing campaign that encourages businesses and restaurants to contribute fresh food to his food bank. In exchange for their contributions, businesses may display signs that inform their customers about the program and highlight the fact that the customers are also now "involved."

During the Christmas season, Wojciech organizes the "Santa Claus" emergency program, which tries to provide Christmas food parcels for families with children who otherwise would not have a holiday dinner. The local media are asked to identify needy children and their families, after which an army of volunteers dressed as Santa Claus distributes the packages.

To facilitate the recruitment and training of volunteers, Wojciech has started a volunteer training center. At the center recruits are taught to organize local food bank initiatives. In 1995 alone the center trained more than 100 volunteers for the food bank program.

From its outset, Wojciech's program was remarkably successful. In 1994, 298 metric tons of food were distributed to needy families. In 1995, 500 metric tons of food were collected and distributed. Wojciech estimates that one meal is approximately one half of a kilogram; thus more than one million meals were served in 1995, and in 1996 more 1.5 million meals were served thanks to the work of the food bank and its dedicated volunteers. Citizen activists and journalists have assisted as the bank distribution has spread into ten other cities beyond Warsaw.

Wojciech and Ashoka Fellow Tomasz Sadowski are cooperating to establish a food bank contribution center in the settlement of former homeless people near Poznan, and Fellow Jacek Jakubowski has sent some of his youth volunteers to work with Wojciech. Meanwhile, farmers' children have the experience of meeting the social entrepreneurs in Poland and learning about their work.

Wojciech is working on "cookbooks," or guide books for community activists interested in setting up affiliated food banks. His goal is to have a comprehensive network of food banks throughout Poland by 1998. Wojciech also believes that his model for food bank operation can serve as a model for activists working in other Central and East European countries.

The Person

Wojciech was born in 1948 and believes that his parents and their passion for charity were a great influence on his life and work. For more than 25 years Wojciech has been active in the building of Poland's civil society. An adamant opponent of the Communist Party, he was one of the creative and leading members of the underground movement KOR and later an active member of the Solidarity movement. He is a historian by training and is a married father of two.