The establishment of a social supermarket in Newtownards has been backed by the local council.
The community-led shops support people struggling with food poverty, and supply low-cost food sourced by charity FareShare and local businesses.
Ards and North Down council is backing the latest project, with funding from the Department of Communities.
The supermarket will be located within The Warehouse, a Newtownards-based community building run by North Down CFC that runs community clubs and projects for people of all ages.
The approximately 10,000-foot building is surrounded by land for food cultivation and preparation, as well as a children’s play area.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, almost 20% of Northern Ireland people, including 100,000 children, lived in poverty at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, with 1 in 14 Northern Irish households in food insecurity, and single parents aged between 25 and 34 are particularly vulnerable. Food poverty was severely exacerbated by the pandemic.
The sites are used by people who are struggling financially, particularly the elderly, families and those contending with the cost-of-living crisis or mental health issues.
One coordinator of an operational social supermarket explained the need for support beyond low-cost food.
They said: “We do a budget with them: they bring their bank statements in, so we can help them maximise their incoming, make sure they are getting benefits they’re entitled to, and help them find employment. The low-cost food is really just the beginning.
“It’s also about their mental wellbeing. They come stressed, anxious and in dire need, so we need to help them transition off the programme when they’re comfortable in their financial situation, but also in a place mentally and emotionally to move forward.”
The latest social supermarket will be staffed by a mixture of volunteers and paid staff.
“We are in a very privileged situation here. We are part of a larger community charity and it’s a team of paid staff and volunteers. We tend to stick to six months as a limit for food help, so everyone’s treated fairly,” they added.
“We are seeing so many that it’s becoming a mainstream concern, so [stigma] is changing a little. There’s a general understanding that this could happen to anyone. Everyone’s feeling the pinch. But there is definitely a stigma. People do come in embarrassed and apologetic.
“The reasons people come to our door are wide and varied. There’s a stereotype that they’re there because they’ve been irresponsible, but no, it’s relationship breakdowns and the complications that come with that.
“We have bereavements which have a massive financial shock, particularly [deaths of] breadwinners. Benefit delays on payments or inaccurate payments. Those situations.”
They said the cost-of-living crisis has worsened the situation, adding: “There’s definitely been an uptake in interest. Different kinds of client coming our way that perhaps we wouldn’t have previously. A lot more working poor — they’re in full-time employment and they’re still struggling to make ends meet, that become much more of an issue.”