36,000 food bank packages handed out in a year in Northern Ireland
Charity says number of families in crisis up 13%
The number of people using food banks has risen by over 13% as more families struggle with the cost of living.
Over the past year more than 36,000 three-day emergency food packages were handed out to people in crisis in Northern Ireland.
More than 15,000 of these went to children.
New statistics showed April 2018 to March 2019 to be the busiest year for food banks in the Trussell Trust's network since the charity opened.
The overall figure is a 13.4% increase on the previous year, when 32,433 emergency supplies went to people in crisis, including 13,289 children.
During the same period, the Trussell Trust's UK food bank network distributed 1,583,668 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis across the UK, an 18.8% increase on the previous year, with 577,618 going to children.
Nearly 25,000 of the three-day emergency food packages were handed out in Belfast alone over the past year, with more than 10,000 of them going to children.
The biggest rise was in Co Fermanagh, which saw the number of people turning to food banks rise by 159% year-on-year, while almost 20,000 of the packages went to homes in Co Antrim, an increase of 25%.
The main reasons for people needing emergency food are benefits consistently not covering the cost of living (42.64%), and delays (12.08%) or changes (16.92%) to benefits being paid.
According to the Trussell Trust, Universal Credit is not the only benefit payment people referred to food banks have had problems with, but issues with moving onto the new system are a key driver of increasing need.
More than a third (38%) of food bank referrals made due to a delay in benefits being paid in Northern Ireland were linked to Universal Credit.
From this data, and other insights from food banks in the Trussell Trust's network, the charity believes ending the five-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment should be the Government's first priority to help create a future without food banks.
"Year-on-year we are seeing more and more people in Northern Ireland struggling to eat because they simply cannot afford food," said Dave Magill, Trussell Trust operations manager for Northern Ireland.
"This isn't right. We know Northern Ireland is on a cliff-edge with less than a year to go before we see the extra flexibility currently available to people under our benefits system come to an end.
"We have real concerns about the impact this will have on our communities.
"Our benefits system should anchor us all from being swept into poverty. Universal Credit should be part of the solution but currently the five-week wait is leaving many without enough money to cover the basics.
"As a priority, we're urging the Government to end the wait for Universal Credit to ease the pressure on thousands of households.
"No charity can replace the dignity of having financial security. That's why in the long-term, we're calling for benefit payments to reflect the true cost of living and work is secure, paying the real Living Wage, to help ensure we are all anchored from poverty."
The Trussell Trust opened its first food bank in Northern Ireland in Newtownards in December 2011, and is now operating at more than 20 locations across the region.