A record 81,000 emergency food parcels have been handed out at food banks in the year to March, with the number provided for children surpassing 35%.
The figures from the Trussell Trust charity represent a 29% increase compared to the previous year.
A total of 81,084 emergency food parcels were given out in Northern Ireland between April 2022 and March this year.
The number is 141% higher than the amount distributed by food banks in the same period five years ago, the charity said.
The statistics also show that an increasing number of people are struggling to afford the essentials, with more than 26,000 people in Northern Ireland using a Trussell Trust food bank for the first time.
The levels of need were particularly acute in winter, and December 2022 was the busiest month on record for the Trussell Trust network in Northern Ireland with 12,262 parcels distributed.
The Trussell Trust said the problem is “not a regionalised issue”, with an increase of at least 28% in each area of the UK – with the highest being in the north east of England, with a 54% rise in the number of parcels being distributed compared to the previous year.
Help from the Government in the form of the Cost of Living Payments – and the support provided in Northern Ireland and Scotland – did result in a temporary dip in need for food banks, the charity said, but the organisation criticised the short-term nature of support.
Speaking about the rising need for emergency food, Jonny Currie, Network Lead in Northern Ireland at the Trussell Trust, said: “These new statistics are extremely concerning and show that an increasing number of people in Northern Ireland are being left with no option but to turn to charitable, volunteer-run organisations to get by.
"The continued increase in parcel numbers over the last five years indicates that it is ongoing low levels of income and a social security system that isn’t fit for purpose that are forcing more people to access food banks, rather than just the recent cost of living crisis or the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everyone in Northern Ireland should be able to afford the essentials – to buy their own food and heat their homes.
"This has got harder in the last year, as has been shown by the 26,000 people needing an emergency food parcel for the first time and a huge increase in children needing our support.
"This is not right."
A Government spokesperson said: “We are committed to eradicating poverty and we recognise the pressures of the rising cost of living which is why we have uprated benefits by 10.1% as well as making an unprecedented increase to the National Living Wage this month.
“This is on top of changes already made to Universal Credit which mean claimants can keep more of their hard-earned money – a boost worth £1,000 a year on average.
“We are also providing record levels of direct financial support for the most vulnerable – £1,200 last year and a further £1,350 in 2023/24, with over eight million families starting to receive their first £301 Cost of Living instalment from yesterday – while the Household Support Fund is helping people with essential costs.”
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