Hunger is an issue this Christmas and New Year

5 Dec 2019 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 18 Dec 2019

Food banks, Universal Credit and holiday hunger are different issues,  but all are interlinked. That relationship comes into sharper focus at this time of year.


The start of December is the beginning of the festive period. Some people dislike the ubiquity of tinsel and elves and Mariah Carey this early in the month but truthfully, for most of us, it takes several weeks to prepare for Christmas Day and the subsequent week.

Food and drink are plentiful and banquets take planning. Presents involve imagination and, even if you can’t think of anything personal, those vouchers don’t buy themselves.

Online shopping has won the battle with the High Street but long, late-month delivery times means the need to finalise choices early in the month is just as pressing as when the impetus was to avoid a Royal Avenue stramash and the possibility of empty shelves where your chosen gifts use to be.

These are the troubles of most people at Christmas. Most people are fortunate. Some are not.

Over the next few weeks several issues with local poverty will collide, ahead of – as things stand – a potentially devastating step change at the end of March.

Food bank use is on the rise in Northern Ireland.

Welfare Reform has rolled out across all of Northern Ireland and, broadly, left claimants who have moved on to Universal Credit with lower incomes than compared with the previous system, despite the Northern Ireland-specific mitigations currently in place.

Holiday hunger is the civic society term for children who rely on school meals for proper nutrition and who therefore do not eat well enough outside term time.

All these things are related.


The Trussell Trust began tracking food bank use across the UK in 2012-13.

Its latest annual figures were released in October. Food bank use in Northern Ireland hit a record high in the recorded period.

In 2018-19 a total of 36,783 emergency food parcels were issued across NI, a major increase on the 32,422 issued in 2018-19, while more than a third (15,191) were for children.

Emergency food parcels are handed out to people who are allocated a voucher by someone like a charity, a GP or a social worker, and contain enough food to cover a three-day period.

It is worth noting also that the figures above relate only to Trussell Trust food banks, which is most of them, but there are 800 independent food banks across the UK that operate outside of the Trust’s remit.

The Trust also tracks the main reasons why people say they need food parcels – with 33.11% of people saying their income does not cover essential costs, 20.34% citing benefits delays, and 17.36% pointing to changes in the benefits system.

Emma Revie, Chief Executive of the Trussell Trust, said upon the release of the latest figures: “What we are seeing year-upon-year is more and more people struggling to eat because they simply cannot afford food. This is not right.

“Enough is enough. We know this situation can be fixed – that’s why we’re campaigning to create a future where no one needs a food bank. Our benefits system is supposed to protect us all from being swept into poverty. Universal Credit should be part of the solution but currently the five week wait is leaving many without enough money to cover the basics. As a priority, we’re urging the government to end the wait for Universal Credit to ease the pressure on thousands of households.  

“Ultimately, it’s unacceptable that anyone should have to use a food bank in the first place. No charity can replace the dignity of having financial security. That’s why in the long-term, we’re urging the Government to ensure benefit payments reflect the true cost of living and work is secure, paying the real Living Wage, to help ensure we are all anchored from poverty.”

Holiday hunger

Some children rely on school food to eat well. Summer can be the hungriest time of year for kids in this position, given the length of the break, but December is obviously difficult too – with the extra consideration that, for many people, Christmas and New Year is a time to stuff your face.

Unfortunately, exact figures for the number of children suffering holiday hunger are hard to come by.

However, given the significant rise in the number of emergency food parcels, it seems likely that the number of children at risk of going hungry this Christmas is higher than it has been in recent years.

On Monday, Channel’s 4 Dispatches looked at what poverty actually means to children living in households with inadequate income. It is difficult to watch, and it is hard to think about the fact these situations seem to be more and not less common than in recent years.

And, if Universal Credit is a driver of food bank use, inadequate household income, and even holiday hunger, come April 1st all these problems are going to get worse.

Since Welfare Reform came to Northern Ireland, it has been operating with some significant exemptions offering extra financial support to some of the most vulnerable claimants, in the form of supplementary payments subject to certain conditions.

Automatic tops up are offered in certain circumstances:

  • To make up the difference between what claimants receive under Universal Credit and what they would have received if the bedroom tax and benefit cap had not applied to them. These are paid for up to four years.
  • To cover the loss of income because of a move from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independence Payments (PIP), paid for up to one year.

Some further money is available by way of a discretionary fund for one-off grants and loans, and funding has been allocated for independent advice services.

As things stand, all this will vanish at the end of March. The mitigations package, worth a total of £585m (much of which is unspent), will end and Northern Ireland’s version of Universal Credit will match the rest of the UK.

Most people are fortunate enough to not be fundamentally reliant on not just the benefits system, but supplements to that system which is supposed to be the social safety net.

This is no reason not to enjoy your own holidays. You are supposed to enjoy your holidays – everyone is, and therein lies the problem.

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