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Column: Thousands of people in Ireland can't afford a basic meal every second day

Food poverty is a difficult – but very real – fact to accept in modern society. Ireland must now make a decision on how to implement a programme to tackle rising poverty and social exclusion, writes Emer Costello.

Emer Costello MEP

OVER 450,000 PEOPLE in Ireland cannot afford a basic meal every second day. This is a difficult fact to believe but one that was made all the more real to me during a recent visit to the Crosscare Food Bank in Dublin.

The centre collects surplus food products from producers and retailers and redistributes them to 50 charities in Dublin working with people living in poverty. It is leading the way in tackling food waste in Ireland by fostering partnerships with producers and large retailers and redistributing food to those who need it most. The Crosscare Food Bank, and others like it across the country, provide a lifeline to the people who visit their centres.

However, the European fund that supports the provision of food aid in Ireland and elsewhere across Europe for the last 25 years is due to end this month. This is the result of a 2011 European Court ruling that the EU does not have the right under the European treaties to use its budget to buy food for the most deprived. The case was taken by a small group of Member States (Ireland not included).

How could Europe be seen to ‘abandon’ the most deprived?

This decision caused uproar among NGOs all in Ireland and across Europe. How could Europe be seen to ‘abandon’ the most deprived, particularly at a time of rising poverty and social exclusion across Europe? How could the abolition of this fund be reconciled with the Europe 2020 strategy target to reducing the numbers at risk of poverty or social exclusion by at least 20 million by 2020?

Thankfully, and quite rightly, the European Commission proposed a replacement programme in October 2012. The proposal envisaged the continuation of EU support for the provision of food aid and but also its extension to support the provision of basic material assistance as well as social inclusion measures.

That was just the first step.

I was elected as the European Parliament’s Rapporteur for this proposed new EU Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) in December 2012. The timetable was very tight; the programme had to be agreed by the end of 2013 so as to ensure no interruption in European support for NGOs. Furthermore, there was a blocking minority of Member States that were opposed in principle to the programme.

We pressed on, meeting with NGOs and charities across Europe to gather their views and drafting a report on the importance of the programme.

Providing basic living supports

Despite opposing views from some members of the European Parliament - some sought to make the programme optional for Member States, others sought to narrow the scope to make it a food-only programme, while some sought to scrap the entire programme – agreement was reached in late November.

Among the elements that I successfully pushed for in negotiations was a guarantee that food banks, charities and civil society are fully consulted and involved in the design, operation and monitoring of national plans to implement FEAD. In addition, I worked to ensure that the administrative procedures for accessing FEAD are as simple as possible, and that there are synergies with FEAD and other EU priorities, such as reducing food waste – it is a scandal that 250,000 tonnes of good food is discarded each day across the EU – as well as promoting public health and sourcing local produce.

In addition to providing food aid, the FEAD programme will provide other basic living supports to deprived citizens, for example for ‘starter packs’ to be developed for people making the transition from homelessness to temporary or more permanent accommodation. Clothing and footwear for deprived children will also feature in the comprehensive programme to address extreme poverty within the EU.

Ireland must now make a decision

Today the European Parliament’s Social Affairs Committee voted in favour of the new ‘Fund for European Aid for the Most Deprived’ (FEAD). It will now go to the European Parliament in February 2014 for final approval. The overwhelming vote in the Social Affairs Committee today signals the way for a strong endorsement of the final package.

While the fund is not and should not be seen as a substitute for the policies and actions needed all across Europe to reduce and eventually eliminate poverty, it is a small but strategically important emergency response that will also support the crucial follow-on social inclusion measures, such as helping the homeless find a permanent home or move towards employment. Whereas the outgoing European programme was a food-centred programme, FEAD is very much a progressive, people-centred initiative.

Ireland must now decide how to implement the programme – whether to concentrate on food aid only, food aid plus basic material assistance, or social inclusion measures only. FEAD clearly has the potential to play an important role in improving the lives of people at the margins of society.

Emer Costello represents the Dublin Constituency in the European Parliament, where she is a member of the EP’s Employment & Social Affairs Committee. For further information about Emer’s work on the Youth Guarantee, see www.emercostello.ie or contact her directly on @emercostello, emer.costello@europarl.europa.eu or telephone (01) 1 874 6109.

Read: This map shows food poverty ‘is a reality in every county in Ireland’

Column: Zero hunger – the only acceptable target

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Emer Costello MEP

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