As Christmas approaches, an NI foodbank has issued grim statistics showing a 28% spike in its usage over the past year.
Craigavon Food Bank, which caters for those in difficulties across Portadown, Lurgan and Craigavon areas, has shown the biggest increase in usage in the last five years.
More than 4,000 people in this area alone have been availing of its services - 2,483 adults and 1,597 children.
Figures show that most of those who are in dire need are single people (30.13%) while the percentage of families using the foodbank is 22.82%.
Chris Leech, who runs Craigavon Food Bank said people need their help for a number of reasons.
He blamed the ongoing austerity from government, the introduction of universal credit and also many people on zero hours or flexible/short-term contracts.
The majority of vouchers used at Craigavon Food Bank’s collection points in Portadown and Lurgan are used by those on low income (affecting 2,061 people).
Though a significant number of vouchers are issued because of benefit delays (affecting 583 people) or benefit changes (affecting 542).
Around 106 people were helped due to sickness while 116 received aid because of debt.
More than 200 people with no recourse to public funds were also helped as well as 46 people because of delayed wages.
Chris said: “You will see from the numbers that single people are disproportionately affected by food poverty. This is because of their limited access to benefits and also that they bear all the household bills alone.
“Of long-term concern is the fact that we don’t have the housing stock to provide more appropriate accommodation for single occupancy dwellers,” said Mr Leech.
“This highlights the unfair nature of the bedroom tax, as many people do not have the choice of a good one-bedroom flat or apartment when finding somewhere to live.
“At Christmas time, many people are not thinking about presents. They are thinking about their electric bill or whether they can afford heating.
“We are so thankful for great initiatives like the St Vincent de Paul and Salvation Army toy appeal, that can help to give kids a good Christmas experience.
“However, for an increasing number of people food and heat security are their priority.
“We shouldn’t be living in a society where people have to choose between heating and eating.”
Craigavon Area Food Bank provides food to people in emergency and crisis situations via a network of referral agencies.
These range from Social workers and medical professionals to churches and charities.
Mr Leech revealed: “Vouchers are issued and then our clients can take them to one of our food bank locations in Lurgan or Portadown.
“At that point they are given three days worth of non-perishable food, with quantity based on family size.
“At Christmas we will always seek to give people a few more festive items to bring a bit of Christmas cheer.
“We also provide free cereals to a number of school breakfast clubs in the area to reduce the number of children that are coming to school hungry.
“Our donations come from permanent collection points in various supermarkets in the area, but we also experience the generosity of schools and churches. Over Christmas many businesses will run a Christmas collection event, such as a reverse advent calendar, where people collect one item a day in the run-up to Christmas.
“At one of our recent supermarket collections, a member of staff approached me to thank us for the good work that we do.
“He had fallen on hard times the previous year and used a local food bank.
“He said that the help was invaluable and now that he was in a better place, he was able to give back.
“He quoted that familiar line, that most of us are only a few pay packets away from being in a similar situation.
“There is no doubt that it is sad in modern society that we have food banks.
“But the cost of living coupled with low wages plays a significant part in their continued need.
“We may have low unemployment, but many of those employed are on low contract hours and the living wage issue needs to be reviewed regularly to ensure that people can do more than survive.
“What we also need to do is think about the way society functions.
“Luxuries are becoming necessities, such as mobile phones and internet access - which are essential for accessing the benefits system, contacting services, paying bills, banking etc.”
If you would like to help in any way, you can reach Craigavon Food Bank via their Facebook page www.facebook.com/CraigavonAreaFoodBank or call Call 0845 200 0136.
Check out their website https://craigavonarea.foodbank.org.