More than £1m has been spent subsidising catering at Stormont - including the MLAs' dining room - over the last five years, newly released figures reveal.
This includes more than £700,000 in subsidies during the three years that the Assembly was not sitting.
But the Assembly Commission also noted that the services were fully operational for use by MLAs, staff, the media and the general public while the Executive was shut down, at least until Covid-19 shuttered most of the building in March.
The public have been allowed to dine in the 24-table oak-panelled Members' Dining Room since August 2017. It was open for lunch between noon and 2pm, with the average price of a three-course meal at £20.
Afternoon tea for £15.50 a head is also usually available for booking.
The published figures reveal that, to date in 2020, the amount needed to cover the cost of catering above actual revenue was £137,428.
This compares to just over £180,000 for all of last year, which in turn was a sharp decrease from £270,720 in 2018.
The numbers from 2016 and 2017 were similar to 2018.
These subsidies cover all catering costs, including the Members' Dining Room, the Blue Flax Restaurant, the basement canteen, and the Members' Bar, as well as events.
In an Assembly question, North Antrim MLA Jim Allister asked the commission "to detail the total subsidy for catering in each of Parliament Buildings' canteens, bars and dining rooms in each year since January 2016".
He said: “I suspect that one of the major issues when it comes to this expense is that Stormont failed to negotiate a get-out clause which meant that money was spent during the period when the Assembly was down which could and should have been avoided.
"Given that mandatory coalition is by its very nature unstable and given to imploding this should have been foreseen and taxpayer money saved."
He added: "It is worth pointing out of course that all building users, including journalists, can and do avail of the subsidised food in Stormont but it is important that the Assembly is seen to be prudent in how it uses public money and I am not sure that ordinary members of the public will be convinced that their money is being put to good use when they look at these figures."
In its reply the Assembly Commission said its support services contract covers catering, cleaning and related services.
"All of these services have been fully operational for MLAs, their staff, Assembly staff, the media and visitors to Parliament Buildings since January 2016," it continued.
"The Assembly Commission requires that catering services are provided during business hours and for events/functions.
"Where the cost of providing catering services exceeds the revenue generated through food and drink sales, the Assembly Commission incurs the operating cost as per the contractual arrangements.
"This operating cost is sometimes referred to as a subsidy. The Assembly Commission continues to work closely with the contractor to monitor and to review the delivery of these services and to minimise costs, where possible
"It is not possible to provide a breakdown by individual catering outlet due to the nature of the contract."
On the Assembly website, it is stated of the dining room: "All our food is lovingly prepared by talented and award winning chefs who are committed to using only locally available fresh produce and ingredients."