Great return from local food banks
National Lottery funding helps mid-west SIMON dish out food to needy families
IT’S hard to believe that families in modern Ireland are struggling to put food on the table – but it’s the harsh truth.
In fact many Irish parents are relieved that schools are back after the holidays, not because the kids were getting under their feet all summer, but just so their children can be guaranteed a healthy meal.
Breakfast clubs have become a fact of life at many schools in disadvantaged parts of the country, and they’re a Godsend for struggling families who take comfort in the knowledge that their child will at least get the day off to a healthy start.
These families might not be starving, but they suffer from food poverty and healthy meals are not part of daily routines because there’s simply not enough money in the home to provide them.
It’s something that Jackie Bonfield, General Manager of the Mid West Simon Community is familiar with. Last year she helped the community apply for National Lottery funding to set up three local food banks and the response has been overwhelming.
“On average we provide the equivalent of 10,000 meals a month or 2,500 every week,” she says. “People are very surprised that it’s needed, and to the extent that it is needed, but locals have been very supportive.”
Food poverty in Ireland is on the rise with over 600,000 people now experiencing the problem according to statistics revealed during a major conference on the issue in Dublin last April.
Speaking at the Eradicating Food Poverty among Children and Young People in Ireland event, Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon, pointed out that the most recent UN figures show the proportion of Irish children living in consistent poverty jumped from 6.8 per cent in 2008 to 11.7 per cent in 2013.
“This means that, according to the most recent available data, some 137,000 children are living in consistent poverty,” he said.
Jackie, staff and volunteers at Mid West Simon are dealing with the human face of those statistics at the three food banks set up with the €15,000 in National Lottery funding they received.
“That bought us fridges and stand-up dry storage areas for our three depots,” says Jackie. “It got us up and running with the equipment that we needed.”
Any family can find themselves suffering from food poverty and most of us are just one major life event away from finding it a struggle to put food on the table.
A lost job can make paying the mortgage or rent impossible after just a few weeks and before long a family struggling with unemployment or the death of its major breadwinner has to make harsh choices between buying food and paying bills.
“A lot of it is a hangover from the economic downturn, you’ve got people who just overstretched themselves during the boom and got big mortgages.” says Jackie. “But you’d also have people who didn’t benefit from the boom and now they’re dealing with new costs like property tax and water bills. In general life has become more expensive.
“This time of year is a particular struggle for parents with school-going children. Families are deciding to buy the school books or pay the rent and everything is getting paid before the food is bought.”
The food banks help Mid West Simon make connections with families that have problems making ends meet but who don’t normally come into contact with support services.
“People who unfortunately have to live in hostels or nursing homes or are accessing crèches are receiving hot meals every day through those services,” Jackie points out. “But the real food poverty we’re seeing is within peoples’ homes where there’s nobody bringing in a hot meal during the day, and the kids are really suffering.”
The food bank has brought in new faces to Mid West Simon, and opened up lines of communications so the root causes of their problems can be tackled.
“If somebody comes in we’ll give them food but within a couple of weeks we’ll try to sit down with them to see what situation has made it that they are suffering from food poverty,” Jackie explains.
“We don’t want to have a situation where people become over-dependent on us. We try to do crisis intervention.
“It might be that a big ESB bill came in, the kids are on holidays and there’s school books to be bought, or maybe the washing machine had to be replaced so the food bank is needed for a finite amount of time.
“The food bank is not something that people should depend on indefinitely so if that’s the situation we need to look at the bigger picture and find out why they can’t survive on the money they have.
“We need to look at the overall crisis and see how we can tackle that rather than just put a Band-Aid on the problem with a bag of shopping.”
The food bank idea came after Mid West Simon started taking donated food from a charity called Heart to Hand and began distributing it to local families it was providing services to.
It soon became clear how much the food was needed, and appreciated, so it was decided to put an organised system in place. Contact was made with Food Cloud, set up by students Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O’Brien to distribute food products that would otherwise be thrown out, and three food banks were set up in the region.
“It was a need that wasn’t spoken about and I suppose it was a lot of luck that things like Food Cloud and Heart to Hand came together for us at around the same time and we realised the potential to source food was there,” says Jackie.
However, despite the wonderful assistance from Food Cloud and Heart to Hand, 12 months after the food banks opened there often isn’t enough food for the need that’s there.
“What we’re finding is the demand from people accessing us is far outweighing the amount of food we have to give, so we’re really reliant on personal donations,” Jackie says.
“Any time we put an appeal out to say our cupboards are low, it’s amazing the generosity we see. It’s hard for people to give stuff, but three extra euros in somebody’s shopping would be maybe six cans of beans, which makes a huge difference to us.
“We’ve a lot of people walking in and giving us a bag of shopping or organisations and companies would have food collection points and they’d ring us and say they’ve a couple of boxes of food for us to collect.
“But we’re always on the lookout for new sources. There are probably a huge number of companies, shops and retailers out there who don’t realise how simple the system is.
“It there’s a butcher closing at half five in the evening and he has meat that was going to be thrown out, we’ll collect it that evening and distribute it. It’s not like there’s a big hoo-hah of paperwork or anything, we’re just in and out very quickly.”
The Mid West Simon food banks are not just putting meals on tables; they’re helping change peoples’ lives through tackling the root causes of poverty.
And it’s all down to a winning combination of National Lottery funding and the generosity of the local community and businesses.
People can donate directly to the food banks at the Limerick Mid West Simon office on the Dock Road or at their centres in Ennis and Kilrush, Co Clare. For large donations call 061- 608980 or email admin@ midwestsimon.ie.
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