11,000 need emergency food parcels
More than 11,000 people received emergency food parcels in Northern Ireland last year, it has been claimed.
As well as churches and community organisations, at least 14 food banks distributed essentials to impoverished families - a sevenfold increase on the number of people requiring help three years ago, according to a leading advice organisation.
Bob Stronge, chief executive of Advice NI, said: "This is a terrible situation which needs to be understood and addressed."
Over the last 12 months the Trussell Trust, which operates the majority of food banks in Northern Ireland, provided more than 11,000 adults and children with three days' emergency food and support - up 489% on the number of people helped during the previous financial year.
Storehouse, another food bank which has been operating in the region since 2008, also handed out supplies from two locations in Belfast and North Down.
Advice NI said it was aware that a number of other independent food banks had been set up to help people in crisis in Belfast, Greater Belfast and Ballynahinch.
Mr Stronge added: "We don't have exact figures yet, but it is clear that there are a significant number of community organisations and churches who are providing food to those in need.
"At least 16 organisations across Northern Ireland distribute emergency food and other goods on a regular basis. Fourteen of these identify themselves specifically as food banks although they may also be engaged in distributing other goods such as clothes, toiletries and furniture.
"We believe that one organisation, the Trussell Trust, has supplied as many as 11,000 people across Northern Ireland who have no alternative but to seek food parcels for both themselves and their families."
Advice NI claimed some people had been forced to use food banks because of delays in the welfare benefit system.
Meanwhile, the organisation also claimed there had been a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking debt advice.
Its money and debt service helped more than 5,000 people deal with over £62 million of debt in the last year. Over half (55%) of their clients had no savings and 10% presented with a deficit budget, which meant their income could not last until their next pay day.
Mr Stronge said: "Recently we have been hearing much about economic recovery. Unfortunately, this recovery is a very long way off for many people across Northern Ireland.
"Many approach advice services feeling they have nowhere left to turn as they grapple with job loss, job insecurity, poverty, mental/physical ill health, debt and many more issues that are proliferating due to the recession and austerity measures."