West Belfast food donation service says need is 'greater now' than ever due to Covid-19
A year after the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in Northern Ireland, many people are continuing to suffer but it is not just those who directly contracted the virus who are struggling to cope. Marie Louise McConville speaks to one community organisation which is busier than ever helping those left living in poverty as a result of coronavirus.
WHILE Covid-19 has resulted in the world having to socially distance in a bid to help save lives, in other ways, it has also brought communities together.
Last March, when the pandemic arrived, west Belfast man Paul Doherty was working as a Clinical Trials Manager at the Royal Victoria Hospital.
The father-of-two, who is also the SDLP representative for west Belfast, was in the same position as most, going to work while ensuring that he and his wife and young children were safe.
However, after seeing and hearing about the effects coronavirus was having some of people in west Belfast, he was prompted into action.
Wanting to help those who had lost their businesses and jobs or who had been furloughed and left struggling to put food on the table, Mr Doherty cleared out his garage at home, installed a number of fridges and asked for donations of food which could then be passed on to those most in need.
The project, `Foodstock: West Belfast Community Response', was named after a music event called `Food Stock', which had been organised by Mr Doherty which saw gigs take place, but instead of paying in, those attending donated food, all of which was then donated to food banks.
When Covid-19 arrived, Foodstock was unable to take place and so, he moved to help those in need in other ways.
"What I had set out to do was raise awareness of the poverty people were experiencing in the community," he said.
"We were able to support food banks from those events. Then Covid kicked in and we couldn't do it any more.
"I got myself involved in linking into a lot of those food banks and I saw them getting into difficulty and they couldn't provide enough. I started off quite small. I cleared my garage and got a few fridges in.
"The numbers started to escalate. The number of people who had fallen through the gaps was on the increase. There was people passing the front of my house and asking if it was a food market.
"People walked past and said `I run a shop. I can get you four crates of bread and I'm a taxi driver, I can deliver the stuff'.
"We started to identify people in need in the community around us. From that, it has grown as things have got worse through the pandemic. We have grown into an organisation."
Given the increased need for the work of the project, Mr Doherty with his team of 30-plus volunteers, then moved into the former St Matthias' Church on the Glen Road in September.
"I wanted to make sure no one was going to be left with no food and my garage wasn't going to do it," he said.
"It expanded. It was quite serious. When you get involved in these sorts of things, you feel responsible and you don't want to let anyone down."
He said the majority of referrals come from agencies including Advice NI, who run the Covid Community Helpline, which can be contacted by anyone affected by coronavirus who is in need of support.
The 41-year-old and his team work at the foodstock project preparing food parcels for delivery, each evening during the week, as they all have day time jobs, as well as at the weekends.
On average, the team provides food for around 400 people a week across west Belfast.
"The volunteers go out and they then become a friendly face," he said.
"They become the only voice they hear from week to week and they bond with them.
"That's what sets this apart. It is a real community spirit. The volunteers are actively looking out for them.
"A big thing for me is keep an eye on your neighbours. We had someone come to us and say there was a wee lady and they hadn't seen her leave the house in a couple of weeks.
"She wasn't eating and she had wasted away. She had no family. She was afraid to go out. She was 90. We have been able to provide ongoing support.
"In the Shankill, I was looking for a house. There were four kids at the living room window. We left food at the door. The kids were cheering and dragging the bags into the house.
"The mother said she had gone through a break-up and had loss of earnings. Her hours were down. She wasn't earning enough to feed her children. She had fed them the night before and she was in a blind panic when she seen she had nothing for breakfast.
"That lady to me was a prime example of falling through the gaps. We are providing ongoing support as she tries to pull herself out of her current situation."
He told how he was also contacted late one night by another mother in need of help.
"She had tested positive for Covid-19," he said.
"She had four kids and a young baby and had no nappies and very little food. She wasn't feeding herself. We acted right away.
"We had a father who has custody of his children three days a week. He lost his business. He was unable to feed them and potentially could have lost custody of them. It was difficult for him to reach out to me.
"I am very grateful we have that support here. It's difficult to sleep at night knowing someone is like that."
The project, which covers all of west Belfast and receives no funding, would not be able to operate without donations from members of the public and businesses.
The group also ran a toy appeal at Christmas which supported more than 200 children and delivered 400 Christmas dinners to homes.
"People will go out and do a separate shop and drop off a large amount of food," he said.
"Local businesses like Sainsburys have come to us and they have provided us with a large amount of food.
"Staff at McDonald's in west Belfast, they found the time to group together and go and do a large shop. Donegal Celtic, every Saturday they bring cars filled with food.
"Certainly, people's perception of the community around them has changed. I have seen people step up and look out for their community. We are just thankful we are able to provide that ongoing support."
Mr Doherty said the need is "greater now" than ever.
"People who were struggling pre-Covid are even worse now," he said.
"There are people contacting us for the first time and availing of food banks for the first time.
"I have seen people who have fallen into hardship and are trying to pull themselves out and I have seen those who have pulled themselves out."
He said he believes projects such as `Foodstock: West Belfast Community Response' will be needed for a long time to come.
"We don't know what cuts are coming down the line. We have looked to the long term. We are a charitable company now."
Mr Doherty, who continues to work full time at the RVH as well as run the food donation service, added: "It's going out and seeing people crying, that hits me. You wouldn't be human if you didn't go home and be upset by what you have seen.
"You have to put yourself in other people's shoes. That's why we go out of our way as much as possible."
**Further information about `Foodstock - West Belfast Community Response' is available on its Facebook page