3,000 a day fed on charity meals
The amount of free food given to needy people is on the increase in Northern Ireland, with thousands of people relying on being fed every day.
One charity says it is feeding 3,000 local people a day and would feed more if it could get more food, while the largest food bank organisation here gave three-day emergency packs to 11,697 people last year.
FairShare says there has been a 61% increase on last year in surplus food distributed to drop-in centres here, while 15 new food banks –which give groceries donated by the public – have opened this year to meet increased need.
The result is that donated food from big businesses and generous householders are helping to sustain thousands of families and people living in crisis across the province.
FairShare is the distributor of surplus food from major food producers and growers such as Tesco, Sainsbury and Asda that is rescued from being dumped at landfill.
Last year it supplied 138 tonnes of food that cannot be sold but is still within the sell-by date to 65 charities like the Salvation Army and Welcome Organisation, which fed 3,000 people each day – that's a 61% increase compared to 82 tonnes that it supplied in 2012/13.
The charity says it is helping to enable the community and voluntary sector in providing 335,000 free meals to people living in "deep poverty", which helps them maintain vital counselling or outreach services.
Food banks are relatively new to Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK and are operated by The Trussell Trust and Store House.
Trussell Trust provided food to 11,697 (6,473 adults and 5,224 children) in 2013/14 compared to 1,987 people (1,102 adults and 885 children) on the previous year.
More people in Co Down were helped than any other county with 4,389 three-day food packs being given out.
Storehouse has three food banks in Belfast and Dundonald. It says that despite other food banks opening up in its area, it is still on target to give out 5,000 food packs to referred people in crisis this year as it did last year.
Both food bank operators give food out on referral from healthcare, social work and community workers who are in direct contact with those most in need, or other professionals such as teachers.
FairShare's development officer Meabh Austin said: "We are finding that food poverty is affecting everyone at the moment and our network of charities help the homeless, those with disabilities, senior citizens, lone parents, or low income families with one or all of their meals on site each day via drop in centres, or places with lunch clubs. But we could be helping a lot more people living in deep poverty as only 1.5% of the 400,000 tonnes of this hidden food source is being given away as most of it goes to landfill, for compost or anaerobic digestion.
"We are helping more charities all the time and it's important for charities to contact us if they think they would be eligible to receive this food along with our nutritional food advice."
Trussell Trust's Foodbank network director Adrian Curtis said that their food banks offered a lifeline to people in crisis.
"The increasing demand for emergency food in Northern Ireland demonstrates how, for many families, times are still very difficult," he said.
"High monthly bills, food and fuel costs coupled with low income, an unexpected bill or change to circumstances forces people to choose between eating or paying for an essential bill."
Matt Orme, donations co-ordinator with Storehouse, which supplies emergency supplies over a short-term period, said that it had already received 450 new referrals so far this year compared to 850 in 2012/13.