View From Stormont: Northern Ireland food bank usage soars despite inflation calming measures

Interest rates have risen again and again in a bid to solve the UK's inflation problem.

The Bank of England's measures are certainly having the desired effect of reducing spending power to fix the big-picture issue, but the increased bills are also forcing all kinds of people into all kinds of desperate situations.

Many are still priced out of the housing market, food bills are still sky-high as the Russia-Ukraine war continues, wages have barely shifted for most workers, and there are no plans for any cost-of-living vouchers like last years' £600 fuel payment.

Cuts to schemes like the Holiday Hunger programme over the summer holidays also took their toll.

In the last five years, the Trussell Trust reports that food bank usage has increased by 141% in Northern Ireland, but that in the same time frame, the UK average is an increase of 120%.

Bangor Foodbank and Community Support can attest to this as UTV's View From Stormont found. Staff and volunteers say they have never seen demand at a higher level, and that working people make up a huge proportion of that.

Project manager Ken Scott says it is "bitter-sweet" to see so many people pass through their doors.

"It's great that people are now starting to be more accepting of food banks, that more people come to us, that the work that we do reduces the stigma of food banks," he said.

"But we don't want to be accepted in the community.

"This should not be the norm for us to be operating food banks anywhere in Northern Ireland."

Demand is so high, but donations have dropped as some former donors now feel unable to do so anymore.

"That's probably our biggest task over the winter - managing that gap," said Mr Scott.

"There is a 21% reduction in donations coming in... but a a 39% increase in demand.

"So it's that gap... just it's going in the wrong direction."

This food bank is determined to provide emergency assistance by way of food parcels, but the charity is also trying to do things differently to ensure that service users find a longer-term solution to improve their financial well-being.

Sophie Paden is financial inclusion manager at the food bank.

In the short time this wraparound service has been operational in Bangor, her team has helped visitors to unlock tens of thousands of pounds of unclaimed benefits.

"We are a small boat in a big ocean", said Professor John Turner an expert in finance and financial history.

The QUB professor said that a lot of the current turbulence is being caused by what's happening in that ocean, and unless those waves calm, it is hard to foresee dramatic changes to food and fuel prices.

"I think it's really important to realise that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has really impacted the food prices," he said.

"So Ukraine is called the the breadbasket of Europe for a very good reason, because 10% of all wheat production happens in Ukraine.

"Another 20% of all the world's wheat production happens in Russia. And so here are these two economies locked in this war, and obviously then that affects the global markets. Those two countries also are large suppliers of artificial fertiliser.

"So that feeds into very basic products. So anything that we grow, whether it be crops, whether that be protein, whether that be chicken, whether that be egg production, those are all affected by what's happening in Russia and Ukraine.

"And so, can we see some alleviation in terms of those things? Well, if we get some sort of cease fire in the Russian Ukraine more we get some semblance of normality in these two countries, we may begin to see then food prices coming back down."

Speaking to View From Stormont at QUB's new business school at the Riddel Hall site, he went on to explain how the war in the Middle East will may also impact fuel prices here.

If the Bank of England is behind the interest rates, and international affairs are impacting food and fuel costs, could Stormont help ease the burdens families are facing?

Jonny Currie from the Trussell Trust believes there NI is lacking a "joined-up", long-term strategy to eliminate the need for food banks.

A plan like this is progressing already Scotland.

Advice about government benefits can be found here.

Crisis support information can be found here.

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