More and more people turning to north's food banks

Mina McKinney, left, with Carolyn Arnold from the Carnmoney Presbyterian Church Food Bank

SOMETIMES people laugh at me when I tell them there is great poverty in Northern Ireland. They simply don't believe it. But, as Bob Stronge from AdviceNI told me a couple of weeks ago, so many people are one pay cheque away from the dole and a couple of pay cheques away from losing their homes.

Why? Because, since the downturn the economy nine years ago, austerity has hit big time. Definition of austerity? Difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure. And boy have they done a good job. Families who were coping well, paying their bills, saving a little and spending wisely now find money doesn't stretch, relationships are strained, savings have gone and in some cases, jobs have gone too.

Where do you turn? The priorities are a roof over your head and of course, food on the table. This is why food banks have become a necessity in modern life, a facility to help people through an emergency until they get sorted out.

Last week the Trussell Trust, a charity that runs a network of more than 400 food banks across the UK – 37 in Northern Ireland – where 13 million people live below the poverty line, published shocking statistics showing that the use of food banks in Northern Ireland has risen by 48 per cent to reach record levels, with 25,755 three-day emergency food supplies provided to people in crisis in the 2015/16 financial year, compared to 17,425 the previous year.

Trussell Trust data shows that, unlike many parts of Britain, here low income remains the primary cause of food bank use.

I visited the Carnmoney Presbyterian Church food bank at Newtownabbey where I met Carolyn Arnold and volunteer of seven years Mina McKinney, who was stocking the shelves in the nearby store. Across the road is the bright little office-cum-shop situated in the church premises, open Mondays 2pm until 4pm and Wednesdays 6.30pm and 8.30pm.

Carolyn explained that for those needing food it's necessary to first obtain a voucher available in medical practices, churches, schools, and from social workers plus a number of other outlets. On presenting these to the volunteers at the food bank they will receive a bag packed carefully with a mixed and healthy diet, tins and packets for one, two and three to four people for three days. Cereal, soup, beans, rice pudding, biscuits, coffee, tea bags, UHT milk are just a few of the items in the bag.

When there are children in the family they will probably find a little extra treat just for them. Not only food, some bags contained nappies, washing powder, toilet rolls and toiletries – these lists have been carefully thought out so people can live a decent lifestyle during this emergency time.

Even cat and dog food in included and vegetarians are catered for. Coming up to Christmas the packages will contain seasonal treats, shortbread, selection boxes, make-up for ladies and toy gift for a child.

Mina has seen people in a desperate state; one woman who came for help told her she could only afford a pack of four chops, one for each of her three children, the forth for her husband and she had soup.

“The children always come first and the mum is the last to think of herself.”

What started out as a church project, with the congregation bringing goods for families and specifically for Women's Aid where member of that charity came to collect the food to protect their clients, such is the level of confidentiality, has grown.

The non-perishable food is received and recorded, weighed and checked for use-by dates then stacked on the shelves. Using a request sheet, plastic bags are filled and distributed. No-one is turned away and although they leave with food for the family, they also leave with advice, friendship and hope.

Carolyn explained that since it was established in April last year, 1,957 adults and 1,626 children have visited the bright shop in the church to chat and receive help.

The Carnmoney Presbyterian Church food bank has three satellite banks: Ballyclare Presbyterian, Abbots Cross Presbyterian and Greencastle Methodist, all in partnership with the Trussell Trust. Over 100 volunteers collect, package and distribute but there are many more people working behind the scenes baking and making a wide variety of items to make those emergency days less traumatic and to keep families together.

Why do people need food banks? Poverty through loss of earnings, illness, family break-ups and debt problems are common; there at the Newtownabbey centre as in other areas, people can get practical help with someone like Carolyn contacting citizens advice centres on their behalf or the local MLA to get things moving.

“When you're rock bottom you need guidance,” she added: “This is not charity; we are all getting together to help people who are going through a hard time. It could be anyone of us any day.”

The public are generous: schools donate, harvest festivals have provided produce – young and old realise the importance of giving. Shops too, especially Tesco branches who have a the permanent collection point at Tesco, Northcott.

“Tesco also gives us a 30 per cent top-up in money on all the food collected in their store.”

Carolyn explains the importance of confidentially. It's a sensitive subject, there is often a stigma and those running food banks do all they can to protect their clients against criticism or accusations of sponging.

“Most people are genuine and we soon know if someone is abusing the system. Our aim is protecting the dignity of those who come to us, to make them feel loved and cared for and we want to show God's love; we offer a prayer if it's wanted. It's all a balance and a need we have to meet.”

:: For more details contact 0758 1179 604.

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