Food poverty in Northern Ireland will only get worse as society recovers from the pandemic, a Belfast consultant has warned.
Dr Julie Ann Maney, a consultant in paediatric emergency medicine at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, made the comments after a sharp rise in the need for emergency food parcels.
According to the Trussell Trust, more than 79,000 emergency food parcels were distributed to people facing crisis in Northern Ireland between April 2020 and March 2021, including 31,000 for children.
This marks a 75% increase from the previous year, when 45,000 emergency food parcels were distributed across Northern Ireland by food banks in the Trussell Trust network, and a staggering 200% increase since 2015/16.
Dr Maney, who last year wrote of the "insidious" effect of child food poverty, said the latest findings added to an already "grim" situation.
"It's not a surprise and it will only get worse coming out of lockdown. Redundancies will happen and there will be huge unemployment, I imagine," she added.
"When I wrote about the issue last year, it was like pointing out that the emperor has no clothes on. I just thought that everybody was aware of how grim it was for people, particularly children."
She said her workload at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children had never been heavier than in recent months.
"We have injuries galore and lots of wheezy children who haven't been exposed to all the normal winter viruses and who are now being exposed as lockdown is easing," she added.
Dr Maney stressed that government intervention to tackle inequality was now more crucial than ever.
"The Covid crisis has just made austerity worse, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. It's in everybody's interest to tackle child poverty," she said.
"The children that we see are coming in with dental decay, iron deficiency, constipation. Their diets are so poor that they've no chance of proper brain development. They've no chance of good health for their future.
"Mental health problems are also at an all-time high for children and teenagers, particularly eating disorders."
Her views are shared by Belfast charity worker Edmund Aruofo, from LifeHubNI, which works to provide hundreds of families across the city with fresh food and produce every week.
"Six months ago, we had a 700% increase in people coming to us. Since then, we've seen at least 13 new families requesting our support every week," he said.
"That includes a lot more local people than ever before. Most of them were working and had been furloughed as well.
"These are not just single people, these are families.
"We've even got a group of a dozen pensioners from the Shankill side of town that we've taken on in this process as well.
"It's an ongoing challenge for families. It feels like a never-ending increase. We're not surprised, but it's a dire situation.
"I hope the Government doesn't see this as a blip, because we were there before the pandemic started and we'll be there long after.
"A lot of people lost their jobs during the pandemic, so there's no guarantee that even if we got the pandemic under control that we would be able to go back into gainful employment for the foreseeable (future)."
Mr Aruofo claimed that the need for government support could not be overstated.
"This problem was there way before Covid and has been magnified by it. As much as we're invested in the mental health and wellbeing of people, which I believe in strongly, food is on par with that level of intervention that's needed in this city," he said.
The Trussell Trust warned that the latest figures were "just the tip of the iceberg", with unprecedented numbers of people being helped throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
The charity added that a lack of food in Northern Ireland was not the issue and that the problem was based on people not having enough money for the basics.
With high rates of unemployment and record redundancies, more people than ever will depend on the social security system to stay afloat, it said.
Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust, added: "No one should face the indignity of needing emergency food, yet our network of food banks have provided record numbers of food parcels in the last year as more and more people struggle without enough money for the essentials.
"This is not right, but we know that we can build a better future.
"This pandemic has shown the unexpected can hit suddenly, but we know that when we push for change, united by our desire for justice and compassion, the government has to listen and act."