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'She didn't eat for 4 days to feed her baby': Irish foodbanks pushed to the limit

19% of adults had skipped meals or reduced portion size so their family can eat enough, according to Barnardos.

Image: Shutterstock/Shawn Goldberg

A FOODBANK COORDINATOR has said it’s impossible to predict whether they can fill the growing demand for food each month, after government statistics published last week found 8.9% of those surveyed in 2021 were experiencing food poverty.

This equates to 445,000 people across the country, a slight decrease from 2020′s figure of 12% which was caused by the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

There are multiple indicators used for food poverty, such as people who can’t afford a meal with meat every second day, those who have missed one substantial meal in the last fortnight, and people who were unable to afford a weekly roast dinner.

  • Our colleagues at Noteworthy want to examine if the State is doing enough to tackle food poverty. Support this project here.

Foodbank coordinator at Trim Family Resource Centre, Elaine Casey, believes that 2022 will almost certainly see more food poverty due to the cost of living crisis.

In May of 2021 the centre provided 393 parcels of food containing mostly non-perishable items like cereal, beans, jam, rice, pasta, tea, and coffee.

By this May the number had grown to 667, with no signs of stopping.

“We have people come in who both work full time. But by the time they pay their mortgage, their car, the usual bills, they don’t have a whole lot left anymore,” Casey explained.

“So we’re running short to supply now by the end of every month, because our supplies are not meeting the demand. And I can’t see that improving anytime soon, either.”

“We had a meeting about this yesterday, we cannot keep going at this rate. And then where will people go?”

The growing need for food is exacerbated by the fact that families who used to donate food are now being hit hard by inflation and beginning to struggle themselves.

There’s also a great deal of stigma that food bank clients feel when reaching out for help, both among newcomers and families who have struggled to get back on their feet after the Covid emergency.

A survey of 1,130 adults carried out by Barnardos in January, Food Poverty The Impact on Vulnerable Children and Families, found that most respondents experiencing food poverty were in that situation because of the cost-of-living.

26% said that the biggest cause for their food poverty was that they had lost income during the pandemic and hadn’t fully recovered.

“People are coming now who’ve never needed help before and they struggle with it. We had a woman in only two days ago, and she’s like ‘You know, it kills me to come here, but I have no choice’,” she said.

Impact on Children

“I can see this being a long-term problem. And I’d be interested to see the figures for this year, when they eventually come out because I believe they’ll be higher than the pandemic. You know, going by my own numbers that I would do weekly, mine have doubled since 2019.”

The same Barnardos survey found that 19% of adults had skipped meals  or reduced portion size so their family or children can eat enough, something Casey has seen firsthand.

“In the last couple of months I met a mam who hadn’t eaten in four days so that her kids could eat. To hear that in this day and age is heartbreaking. She was so stressed and so worried.”

“She had a baby, and when you aren’t in that situation you forget the price of nappies, you forget the price of formula. Obviously she’s going to buy that for the baby before feeding herself. It’s heartbreaking,” she said.

30% of respondents to the Barnardos survey had witnessed food poverty among children firsthand, with most of them noticing an obvious impact on children’s growth, emotional development and mental health.

“People bring their children for food collections during the school term and most of the younger ones haven’t got a care in the world, they have no clue. But the ones that are ten or twelve you can see that they’re embarrassed almost, and sad to be there,” Casey continued.

She pointed out that it’s more difficult keep children fed during the summer because they tend to eat more and the schedule of school isn’t there to provide consistency around mealtimes.

The logistical struggle

Trim Family Resource Centre receives support for its foodbank through the Fund of European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) but is teetering dangerously close to having more families signed up for food parcels than it can actually feed.

FEAD is an EU fund that works with not-for-profit bodies to fund the purchase of food and basic material assistance and has given out a total of €26.7 million in the period 2014-2020.

“That puts us under pressure then, do we have to put a capacity on how many families we can take in? But then how do you accept one and turn away another? We’ll have a chat with FEAD, but they’re on a budget, they can’t move funding  from any other charity,” she explained.

Casey says that something major has to change sooner rather than later because the foodbank is losing volunteers who will do food collections because of the rising cost of petrol and diesel.

“Transport isn’t covered by FEAD. I volunteer part-time but it takes up more and more of my time because I’m thinking ‘If I don’t go collect that, there are families dependent on that food the next day’.”

“That puts on a bit of pressure. If you don’t collect it there’s families going hungry. ”

She added that she’s aware of foodbank clients who have stopped taking medication because they can’t afford it and have other more urgent bills to take care of.

Trim Family Resource Centre organises its parcel collection by sending texts to confirm with every family that has signed up if they need a food parcel that week.

If they respond yes they will be given a five minute time slot that evening to collect their food in order to avoid crossing paths with anyone they know.

“We have families that are working coming in saying, ‘Are you sure nobody needs this more than I do?’ But how do you define who needs it more than anybody else? Because everybody’s situation is so different.”

The centre’s needs are constantly changing and ideally they would like to have a comfortable amount of food left over when all their parcels are given out, in case it becomes needed.

Casey said that last month the only surplus left was two boxes of teabags and they can’t be 100% sure each month if they have enough supplies to feed everyone.

FoodCloud

The problems she has seen are far from unique.

 FoodCloud is a social enterprise that connects community groups and food banks with  the food industry and retailers that have surplus food.

A survey it carried out among the community groups it partners with found that 73% of respondent are experiencing an increase in demand for food.

65% of organisations expect that this demand is going to continue to grow and 25% of  organisations are already not meeting the demand in their areas. 

A spokesperson for FoodCloud told The Journal how difficult the first months of lockdown were for the families it sources food for. 

40% of charities closed or were unable to offer indoor services. Of those that stayed open, demand for food increased by 50%.

“We were getting less surplus food from retailers because the public was panic-buying and there wasn’t much that would have been available to FoodCloud,” they said.

“But it’s going to look different than what it looked like during Covid, it won’t be as immediate, this will probably be something that we will see grow gradually. So there’s lots of time for us to get prepared.” 

“There’s a huge population of people in Ireland who don’t ask for help, and actually struggle regularly. And during the pandemic, at that lockdown stage, they were given no other option.”

They believe that the current situation will take longer to reach its peak as people continue to support their families as long as possible before reaching out for support.

“It takes people time to recognise ‘I am in a difficult situation right now’. But the impact of this will be felt longer term than the pandemic.”

Families are especially at risk of food poverty if the head of the household is under 40 years old, hasn’t finished secondary education, is a single parent or divorced, or is disabled.

Casey added: “Our next food order is in August, so I have to re-jig what I had planned last week because, with the amount of families we have, I had to drop certain things and get in extra cereal.”

“We’re out of cereal already and we still have another two weeks before our order comes in. We’re averaging 30 to 35 families this week. So I have to pull probably 70 boxes of cereal from…. I don’t know where.”

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