On the eve of an Assembly debate on the biggest benefit system changes since the introduction of the welfare state, Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland was urged to support the work of foodbanks.
A motion from his own party, the DUP, asked for backing for the church and charity operations which have grown in Northern Ireland in recent years.
MLAs were told that foodbanks are not only feeding crisis-hit families but helping to prevent marriage breakdowns and people in danger of self-harming.
They distribute emergency food supplies to people in debt or with low incomes — or cases where an unexpected bill comes or people have issues with their benefits.
Simon Hamilton said in many ways it is “unfortunate” that churches and charities have had to open foodbanks which are “springing up all over Northern Ireland as a result of the deepening economic gloom”.
The Strangford MLA said: “No one would suggest that foodbanks are able to solve all of the ills of the recession but their contribution is proving vital.
“I have heard of how the help foodbanks provide, not just materially in terms of food but also the listening ear and support they offer, have helped avert marriage breakdowns and assisted people contemplating self-harm.
“Foodbanks have also found that the people they are helping are from all communities and all classes with the impact of the downturn knowing no socio-economic boundaries.”
Mr Hamilton said the Government seemed ill-equipped to provide short term, immediate help, but churches, charities and community organisations could step in.
“What Government can and should do is work with foodbanks to promote their work through statutory agencies like the Social Security Agency, Social Services and Jobs and Benefit Offices and also partner with them to ensure that no one in need goes without the food that foodbanks can offer.
“Foodbanks could also provide Government with statistics about what types of people are using their services and for what reasons and this could then assist policy development.”
Yesterday's motion “notes the growth” of foodbanks and asks Mr McCausland to ensure his Department continues to support and promote their work.
Foodbanks in Northern Ireland include:
- Newtownards Foodbank operates from the town’s Thriving Life Church with almost 100 volunteers handling over 1,000 tonnes of donated food a month and distributed to, on average, 100 needy people in the surrounding area.
- The Storehouse at Belfast City Vineyard in Dunmurry sends out 70 or 80 bags to families in greater Belfast every week — and says it is meeting about half demand.
- People in the Lurgan, Moira and surrounding areas are receiving help from The Shed which operates out of St Saviour’s Church in Dollingstown and Magheralin and works together with Christians Against Poverty.