Pivotal

Author

Jonny Currie

Jonny Currie

Published

Facebook pages appealing for essential items, huge wire metal baskets at supermarketcheckouts, shelves of green plastic crates in the background of a TV interview with a tired and exasperated volunteer. It’s difficult to imagine a Northern Ireland now where these images are not commonplace. 

The first Trussell Trust food bank in Northern Ireland opened in 2011. In 2024 there are 23food banks in our network that now operate in over fifty locations alongside many other independent food banks. A community–led crisis support infrastructure has rapidly established itself.

Food banks in the Trussell Trust network in NI distributed over 90,300 emergency food parcels in 2023/24. This is the highest number of parcels that the network in Northern Ireland has ever distributed and represents a 11% increase on 2022/23 levels. This percentage increase is higher than the respective figures for England (5%), Scotland (–0.1%), and Wales (1%).  This is also the first time that food banks in the Trussell Trust network provided over 38,000 parcels for children in this period, with record levels of need seen for both children and adults in the last year. 23,700 people were also driven to rely on charitable food aid for the first time.The significant increases in need seen over the last few years are linked to the soaring cost of living for people across Northern Ireland and the fact that people’s incomes (especially from social security) have failed to keep up with these costs. Inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) started at 8.7% in April 2023 and remained higher than 4% for much of the year until falling to 3.2% in March 2024.  

The cost of the essentials has continued to rise in this period. Food inflation was at 19% in April 2023 and remained above 10% for much of the year until falling to 4% as of March 2024. While it is welcome that inflation is slowing, the continued high inflation in the cost of essentials, particularly food, continues to make it harder for families to make ends meet. The cumulative impact of very high levels of food inflation alone over the last few years means food prices are 24% higher in March 2024 than March 2022.

Our most recent evidence collected in February 2024 highlights that despite the fall in inflation far too many people are having to go without the essentials. When surveyed in February more than half (53%) of people receiving Universal Credit in Northern Ireland said that they had run out of food in the last month and couldn’t afford more.According to Hunger in Northern Ireland, 40% of people referred to Trussell food banks received no advice from other services before their referral. Existing community and voluntary services are under increasing pressure. The failure of the NI Executive to deliver a joined–up, long–term plan to address poverty is keenly felt – as is the more immediate need to ensure that existing support, in the form of welfare mitigations and discretionary support, is fit for purpose.Ending the need for charitable food aid in Northern Ireland will require a UK–wide effort across all levels of government and society. Establishing an Essentials Guarantee legal minimum in Universal Credit would embed in legislation the principle that, at a minimum, Universal Credit should protect people from going without essentials, such as food and bills. We believe the current level of £91 is too low. It would need to be at least £120 a week for a single adult and £200 for a couple. This should be based on an independent process to regularly determine the Essentials Guarantee level, based on the cost of essentials. This proposal enjoys widespread support, with 72% of the general public in favour.

Looking across the water to food bank use in Scotland, there is growing evidence on the impact of a long–term cash–first approach targeted at people lacking a financial buffer to manage unexpected costs, with indications that the Scottish Child Payment (SCP) of £26.70 a week per eligible child, payable every four weeks for every child under the age of 16, may be starting to make a difference. To support the understanding of the impact of the roll out of the SCP the Trussell Trust commissioned in–depth analysis of the data from the Fraser of Allander Institute (FAI). FAI’s preliminary analysis of the data which compares food bank usage in Scotland to the rest of the UK suggests the SCP has had a small, but statistically significant, decrease in the proportion of total parcels provided for two household types: Households with children aged 5–16 without younger children and Single–adult households with children aged 0–4. This impact was evident once the SCP reached a higher level of £25 a week per child.At English local authority level, the evaluation of a cash grant pilot scheme funded by Leeds City Council and operated in partnership with the Trussell Trust and food banks in the Trussell Trust network in 2022 found that most people spent their cash grant on food as a priority and then spent any remaining grant on other pressing needs, mainly gas and electricity payments. Longer–term impacts of the scheme included the ability to accumulate small amounts of savings, increased confidence in financial management, debt repayment, and purchase of durable household itemsThrough 2023/24, the UK government provided a series Cost of Living Payments to people. The highest value payments were issued to people claiming means tested benefits and people claiming Tax Credits. On reviewing these payments our data shows a consistent trend of a short significant reduction in the need for food banks in the Trussell Trust network across Northern Ireland. The final late Winter 2024 payment saw the biggest percentage decrease – this may, in part, be due to it coinciding with the easing of inflation. Food banks distributed 1,400 parcels on average per week in the period the payments were being distributed, a 19% decrease compared to the average of the preceding three weeks. As with the other payments there was still an increase following the payment – of 6% in the three weeks following the period the payment was in place.We know that a lack of income is what’s pushing people to food banks and we know what’s needed to end hunger for good. This “new normal” is damaging health, limiting lifetime opportunities, and holding back our economy. It’s time for the NI Executive to put the building blocks in place with a long–term plan that will consign the need for food banks to history. 

Jonny Currie, Northern Ireland Network Lead, Trussell Trust

Related blogs

New choices for Northern Ireland in a changing UK and Europe: divergence and alignment in times of electoral upheaval

New choices for Northern Ireland in a changing UK and Europe: divergence and alignment in times of electoral upheaval

Ever since 2016, questions of policy divergence and alignment in Northern Ireland have been simmering in the background, with a few moments (sausage wars! arsenic in cake!) nearing boiling point.

Read more
Who Cares About Cancer? Why stabilisation and transformation are critical to cancer care in NI

Who Cares About Cancer? Why stabilisation and transformation are critical to cancer care in NI

In a perfect reality, this shouldn’t be a question that needs to be asked. Sadly, in a world filled with growing apathy, we find ourselves in a situation where people are being failed by decision–makers and are left wondering, who actually cares about cancer? With significant pressure growing across our public services and as the strain on NI’s budget intensifies, decision–makers are at significant risk of failing an ever–growing number of people with cancer.

Read more
What goes on behind the scenes of a UK general election

What goes on behind the scenes of a UK general election

After almost six weeks of campaigning, the UK general election is nearly upon us. As the public gets ready to head to the polls tomorrow, Thursday 4 July, the Electoral Office and Electoral Commission has been busy behind the scenes ensuring this general election runs smoothly.

Read more

This site uses cookies for general analytics but not for advertising purposes. View our privacy & cookie policy to find out more. If you continue without changing your settings, we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies on our website. However, you can change your cookie settings at any time.