There are empty stomachs, cupboards and wallets across Northern Ireland. When people reach a financial breaking point, they are left with no choice but to turn to foodbanks for assistance.
Foodbanks in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK are overseen by a charitable organisation called the Trussell Trust. Trussell Trust foodbanks operate according to a voucher system. Without a voucher it is not possible to receive service at a foodbank. Vouchers are distributed by local authority figures such as a doctor or priest who can verify that a person is in need. The number of people using foodbanks in Northern Ireland was relatively low during their first year of operation. In the North Belfast foodbank, in their first year which was 2013/14, 839 people used the foodbank. In 2014/15 it was used by 1548 people. That represents an 85% increase in usage. Coleraine foodbank also experienced a significant increase in users after their first year. In 2013, the year it opened, it served 689 people. This increased to 881 in 2014 and 1564 in 2015. An increase of 28% and 78% respectively across these years.
For the foodbanks that I have surveyed, 2019 represented their busiest year. As the bar chart demonstrates, 1717 people were fed in Coleraine, 1643 in North Belfast, 2,226 in Lisburn and 4,206 in Craigavon. It is difficult to differentiate between causation and correlation when it comes to these statistics but there are factors that contribute to these figures. The population of Coleraine is relatively small to the other areas which could explain the lower number. The population of North Belfast is high, and it is an area with considerable poverty which suggests that the figure should be higher.
However, there are other foodbanks in Belfast that people could be making use of. Belfast also has other foodbanks which are not run by the Trussell Trust. Statistics are not available for those foodbanks which shows that numbers do not always tell the full story. Lisburn and Craigavon have quite large populations and they are also the only foodbank for considerable distance in their area. Their catchment area is quite high which means people could come from further afield to make use of these foodbanks.
North Belfast Foodbank
Ballymoney foodbank were unable to provide me with a year by year breakdown of data but they gave me a total which covers the last six years. Since Ballymoney foodbank opened in February 2014 they have given out 2861 vouchers. These vouchers were used by 4,702 adults and 2,206 children. They have given out 65,340 kilograms of food. These figures are accurate as of January 2020. Peter Rollins, company director of Ballymoney foodbank spoke to me about why people attend his foodbank and why he thinks foodbank usage has spiked across Northern Ireland.
“In the last year and a half, I’ve given roughly 45 talks in the local community to churches, schools and scout groups about why foodbanks exist and what sort of person uses a foodbank. I’ll tell you this, there is no one type of food bank user. There should be no stereotypes about who uses a foodbank. One of the biggest reasons why local people come to use foodbanks is debt. We work with Christians against Poverty and they refer a lot of people to us who have been struggling with debt. It could be credit card debt, rent or mortgage debt. Sometimes people make wrong decisions in life and it is not our role to criticise, but people do get themselves into bad situations. We have an awful lot of family breakups in the Ballymoney area. We seem to come across them more than in other areas. Another major reason would be sickness. Someone has to take a few days off work, and they aren’t getting paid. There are no major employers in the Ballymoney area, and many people have no company to rely on. They are relying on savings and loans to keep them going.”
Universal credit has been cited by the Trussell Trust as a main factor in driving people to foodbanks. A report entitled “#5weekstoolong” published by the Trussell Trust in 2019 suggests that rather than bringing people out of poverty, universal credit plunges people further into it. A major issue with Universal Credit is the “five week-wait” to receive benefits once transferring to the new system. This is what is being referred to in the title of the report. This wait for payment can cause claimants to feel great insecurity and the lack of money for food can be detrimental to both their mental and physical health. The rise in foodbank usage in Northern Ireland largely matches the wider implementation of universal credit.
Peter spoke to me further about the effect of universal credit and job losses on foodbank use in Ballymoney.
“Universal Credit has driven quite a lot of people through our doors. People have to wait for their benefits when change over to Universal Credit. That can cause chaos for people but thankfully that problem has eased recently in Ballymoney. However, when benefits are delayed it can cause significant problems. One story is of a soldier who was injured in Iraq. He came back to live in Ballymoney, and it took three months for his benefits to get sorted out. We helped him out until he was back on his feet. Let me give you an example of job losses. When Wright Bus laid off staff 12 families were referred to us by them in a short period of time. Something unexpected like that can happen and it drives people through our doors.”
Whilst the data I have gathered in most cases accounts for the difference between adults and children, it does not account for the genders of food bank users. Peter provided me with some insight into the gender makeup of Ballymoney foodbank users.
“One of the biggest increases in recent times is single males. I don’t necessarily mean people who are single in terms of a relationship, but men who live on their own. Whether due to marital or family breakups, the male tends to leave the home. In my experience, 95% the female stays in the home and it’s the male who leaves. When they leave the home, they can get themselves into trouble. They often live on their own in one-bedroom flats. Recently we’ve dealt with four males living rough in Ballymoney area. One of whom told us that he did not want any help from us.”
Not every single person listed in these statistics is on benefits or has been made redundant. There are full time workers who need to use foodbanks as their pay does not stretch far enough or arrives too late. This has been a problem in Ballymoney, people have turned to the foodbank when there has been a delay in receiving their wages.
“There were four nurses from Coleraine hospital who arrived to me one Friday night. They went to pick up their pay at the end of the month and it wasn’t in their bank accounts. There had been a problem with the payment system. Also, sometimes simple things can happen like when someone’s car breaks down. They need the car repaired then they have no money until they get paid at the end of the month. The average family in Northern Ireland has £250 in savings and when you have a big expense like that, a lot of it is gone. 61% of the people Ballymoney food bank gives food to are in low paid work. People need to realise that we deal with people who have jobs and struggle to make ends meet.”
As Peter said, there is no typical foodbank user. Each person has their own unique story and set of circumstances that brought them there. People from various backgrounds can find themselves in need for numerous reasons. The impact of Universal Credit and addiction is common knowledge but the impact on workers is less publicised. A few weeks of missed benefits or pay, even something like forking out for a new washing machine, can bring people to the door of a foodbank.