Christmas is the busiest time of year for foodbanks

30 Nov 2018 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 30 Nov 2018

Manna in Dundonald
Manna in Dundonald

Another Christmas, another busy month for foodbanks. For most people, they are an abstract concept – that’s because most people never have to use them.

Do you know where your local foodbank is? I didn’t. However, turns out I pass it every day.

Anti-hunger charity the Trussell Trust this week revealed that not only was Christmas the busiest period for foodbanks last year, but also that year-on-year demand is increasing and the organisation is preparing for its busiest festive period yet.

In December 2017, its network of UK foodbanks provided 159,388 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis, of which 65,622 went to children – 49% above the monthly average for the 2017-18 financial year.

There are more than 20 foodbanks in Northern Ireland; the Trussell Trust website lists 23, details for a couple more are online elsewhere, there may be more.

The first one in NI opened on December 19, 2011, just in time for Christmas. This was not a coincidence, as per the figures above, and took a remarkable effort from the team behind Newtownards Foodbank.

For most people, foodbanks will be an abstract concept. If you don’t need to use them, they are something on the news, something you might find concerning, something you know exists – even if, like me, there is one down the road from your house that you travel past all the time without knowing what it is, why it is there, or truly appreciating the help it offers people in need.

The Trussell Trust’s chief executive Emma Revie said: “Christmas is supposed to be a time for joy but what we’re seeing is the festive period becoming increasingly stressful for more and more people across the country.”

The foodbank picture

Per the Trussell Trust, foodbanks in Northern Ireland gave out 32,433 food parcels in 2017-18, of which 13,289 went to children.

The area of most need was Co Antrim, where over a third – 15,522 – of the total parcels were handed out. Co Down was next, with 5,893.

That represented a 1% decrease in distribution of three-day emergency parcels when compared with the year before. However, across the UK as a whole, demand increased by 13% in 2017-18.

One potentially significant difference when comparing Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK might be Universal Credit. Welfare Reform is being rolled out across NI right now but, in general, is much more advanced in Great Britain.

The Trussell Trust says the fact that benefit levels fail to cover essential living costs, as well as issues with benefits payments, remain the most common reasons for referral to a foodbank.

When the stats for the last financial year were published in April, NI Director Tony Graham said: “No-one in Northern Ireland should be left hungry or destitute – illness, disability, family breakdown or the loss of a job could happen to any of us, and we owe it to each other to make sure sufficient financial support is in place when we need it most.

“Any decrease in the need for foodbanks, however small, is welcome. While the benefits freeze is currently ongoing in Northern Ireland, we hope the flexibilities and mitigations which support people on the lowest incomes are leading to a deceleration in foodbank use.”

This week, the Trust’s CEO said: “Our benefits system is supposed protect us all from being swept into poverty – but what we’re seeing is people struggling to heat homes and put food on the table because they simply cannot afford the basics anymore and that just isn’t right.

“We know it doesn’t have to be like this. In the short-term we’re urging the public to donate generously during the first part of December and into the new year, as unfortunately the need for foodbanks is not going to end after Christmas.

“Ultimately, it’s unacceptable that anyone should have to use a foodbank in the first place. We do not want to be here in the long-term, continuing to pick up the pieces. That’s why we’re urging the Government to ensure benefits payments reflect the cost of living and reduce the waiting time for Universal Credit to help ensure we are all anchored from poverty.”

Scope wrote about the link between foodbanks and Universal Credit back in 2014, in an interview with the CEO of Advice NI, Bob Stronge, who raised concerns about the need for foodbanks in a relatively wealthy place like Northern Ireland while predicting that many more would be established. There were nine, at the time; Mr Stronge has been proved right.

Feeling festive

Christmas is a big time for charities.

For many people, it is one of the happiest times of the year, when good parts of their life take centre stage - they eat, drink and are merry with loved ones, and take and receive gifts. It is of great importance to Christians, and December is also a notable period in some other religions.

Christmas brings the good fortune that many of us enjoy into sharp focus. This can encourage generosity of spirit. Charities want to tap into that, but this can be a fine line to walk for the third sector.

Charity is about helping people who are in difficulty. Amongst other things, this can mean asking people who are in a relatively fortunate position to donate money, or time, to a good cause.

However, charities are not in the business of monetising guilt or making people feel bad – and they certainly don’t want to be seen that way. The appeal for help by the Trussell Trust CEO, above, is a good example of that; its aim is to highlight urgent need.

I found out yesterday that I know exactly where my local foodbank is. It is Manna, on the Newtownards Road in Dundonald.

A joint initiative between seven different local churches, it opened in 2013 and has handed out 1,103 three-day emergency food parcels to people in crisis last year.

This discovery came not through any aspect of living in this community, but through work. Scope writes about policy and issues, I decided to take a closer look at these new Trussell Trust figures and, a few clicks and googles later, there it was.

My first thought was that I’d always wondered what that shop sells. It has very distinctive signage but, despite some idle curiosity, I’d never taken a closer look. If I had, I’d have discovered it’s not a shop and it doesn’t sell anything.

There is a salient lesson there, about the sight unseen nature of others’ misfortune. It gave me pause.

For most of us, Christmas is a great time of year. I expect mine will be. Unfortunately, not everyone is in the same position.

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