Choosing between food, heat or toys this Christmas
Poverty means that this Christmas, too many families will be faced with choosing between food, heat or toys. Groups such as the Foyle Food Bank have seen a sharp rise in demand for their support this year, prompting Termonbacca Retreat Centre in Derry to host a dialogue on tackling poverty in the north west
"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."
This quote from Matthew 25:35-36 outlines the Christian response and justification for the existence of food banks, though we need to be very clear that they should not be needed.
It is a moral duty on any government to see to it that their citizens have the opportunity to acquire the basics for a decent standard of living, including food, heat, clothes and a roof over their heads.
One of the biggest drivers of poverty in its various forms is unemployment.
People without a job, a means of earning a living and providing for themselves are at the mercy of state benefit programmes that invariably just give enough to keep them above the poverty line.
Food banks have grown exponentially in the last 10 years; the Trussell Trust, whose network of food banks is probably the UK's largest, is associated with more than 1,200.
Between April 2018 and March 2019 the Trussell Trust network distributed 1.6 million three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis. More than half a million of these went to children.
In Northern Ireland in the last six months, 17,000 three-day emergency food parcels were given out. Almost half of these went to children.
Food banks in Northern Ireland have become an all-too-familiar part of life for too many people, as indeed they have in the rest of the UK.
They are, quite simply, a very visible symptom of the failure of various government social policies and strategies, including the benefit system, particularly universal credit, as well as austerity measures, low wages and zero-hour contracts.
Food banks are simply an accountable mechanism for redirecting the food so generously donated by the general public to those most in need.
The wider aim is to raise the awareness within communities to come together to end hunger and poverty by providing compassionate, practical help with dignity, while challenging injustice.
In this day and age it is quite simply wrong that many people in our society have no food to eat.
It is unjust that many people are locked into poverty and food insecurity all their lives and that many children are raised in poverty; and it is unjust that many children would go hungry if it wasn't for school breakfast clubs and free school meals.
It is unjust that low paid jobs, zero-hour contracts and an uncaring benefits system leave many people at the risk of food poverty.
In Northern Ireland in the last six months, 17,000 three-day emergency food parcels were given out. Almost half of these went to children
And it is unjust that high unemployment in the north west and elsewhere leaves many people chronically unemployable and from time to time - particularly during periods of crisis in their lives - at the risk of food poverty.
There is no doubt that the previous risk factors have complex root causes but there is equally no doubt that food poverty and insecurity can be ended.
The Foyle Food Bank (FFB) - a not-for-profit, independent charity, operating under the Trussell Trust banner - has been in operation for just over three-and-a-half years.
During that time and simply because of the magnificent generosity of the people of the north west, the FFB has distributed to those people experiencing food poverty and crisis more than 80 tonnes of food.
Last year 20 tonnes of food was donated, which fed 3,467 people from the north west, of whom 1,486 were children.
This year the FFB expects to surpass those numbers. We would rather the FFB was declining and going out of business but unfortunately, for the many complex and varied reasons already cited, the number of people facing hardship and food poverty and insecurity is constantly rising; the FFB is responding to this need by growing steadily.
There are complex factors at play in the lives of people who find themselves at risk of food poverty or insecurity.
Latest figures from the Trussell Trust's State of Hunger Report 2019 identify low income, being a lone parent, having more than two children, living in a household affected by ill health, being a working age adult living alone, being a renter - especially a social renter - and being unemployed as being most at risk.
There has been a sharp 29 per cent increase in the number of food parcels given out in Northern Ireland.
Indeed, the FFB has also seen an increase in the number of families and individual clients forced to use the food bank.
The numbers are constantly rising and with no change in the failed government strategies and policies they will continue to do so.
Christmas is a time when many families at risk are faced with a very stark choice: food, heat or toys.
The average weekly income of households using food banks in Northern Ireland is only £50 after paying rent; one-in-five have no money coming in at all in the month before being referred for emergency food; 94 per cent of people coming to food banks are destitute, i.e. they have no money for the basic necessities of life.
Therefore, it is imperative that we talk about poverty.
North west dialogue on poverty
HOMELESSNESS campaigner Fr Peter McVerry will be the keynote speaker at a dialogue on poverty hosted at the Termonbacca Carmelite Retreat Centre in Derry this Saturday, December 7, from 10am to 2.30pm.
The Jesuit priest will share from his own experiences of working with those in poverty in Dublin, including through the Peter McVerry Trust, which is one of the largest organisations in the Republic responding to homelessness.
Also speaking will be Deirdre McDaid from the Foyle Food Bank and Catherine Lusby of the Apex Living Centre, who will talk about its food club project.
Dr Katriona O’Sullivan from Maynooth University will share her journey through poverty to becoming a university lecturer and George McGowan, project director at the Old Library Trust Healthy Living Centre, will talk about the negative effects of poverty on the social, mental and physical wellbeing of the people in the Creggan and Derry area.
It is hoped that a poverty forum for the north west will be formed, with the aims of raising awareness of the root causes of poverty, advocating for those most affected by poverty and lobbying politicians and statutory organisations to make positive changes to policies and strategies.
The dialogue in Termonbacca is open to everyone from the north west who has an interest in social justice and the elimination of poverty, those who are dealing with the negative effects of poverty as well as anyone working to alleviate poverty and its root causes.
For further information contact Termonbacca Retreat Centre, Derry by telephoning 028 7126 2512.