Food banks pop up like melanomas on a sick society. Last week, Ireland opened a giant food bank to cope with the 600,000 people living in food poverty. According to data on Material Deprivation published by the European Commission, Ireland comes in at number three on the list of most deprived countries in the EU-15 – just after Greece and Italy. This means that one million people, or 28 percent of the Irish population, struggle to provide themselves with heat, shelter, food and bills.
Bia, Ireland's first giant food distribution hub, was launched last Friday in Munster. What makes it different is that, rather than a community response to a failing state, Bia comes with state backing – €267,000 (£210,650) of backing from the Department of Social Protection over the next three years. Joan Burton, Ireland's minister for Social Protection and Leader of the Irish Labour Party, opened the centre, to little media attention.
I visited Valerie Cummins in a small corner of Dublin's run down north inner city as she divvied up boxes of cereal, tins of peas and bags of pasta. Valerie works for Crosscare, a social support agency in Dublin that set up Ireland's first community food banks.
"We collect the food here and then distribute it via local charities to people in need. We also set up community food banks where people get a voucher that entitles them to a week of food," she told me. "Right now, demand is so high we can't keep up. People are dropping in all the time asking for emergency parcels to get them through the next few days. I've been working with Crosscare for 25 years and I have never seen things so bad. People are more desperate than ever."
It's in this climate that charities like St Vincent de Paul and Crosscare struggle to carry out the gargantuan task of providing the homeless, working poor and those on welfare with supplies that will see them through the cold Irish winter.§
Rose Sinclair-Doyle, 44, is a final year art school student and mum of two from Tallaght, south Dublin. She has recently started to use the new community food bank to feed her family. "People never think it could happen to them," she said. "I've been living under austerity for years, but it was only when my daughter moved back home with her two kids that the money just couldn't stretch to feed us all."
Rose now collects a weekly voucher that entitles her and her family to a set amount of food worth €80 (£63). Previously, she was the only income in the house, receiving a Back to Education Allowance that gave her €188 (£148) a week. After paying her mortgage of €130 (£103) a week, Rose, her daughter and two grandkids were expected to live on €58 (£46) a week, or €14.50 (£11.44) per person.
"I'm ashamed going in, but I need food," she said. "It's not an easy thing to do, but after I split from my partner I was left alone with the mortgage repayments. I don't get fuel allowance, so I have to think about heating my house, paying for electricity... it's so hard. I'm so angry and upset with the government of Ireland for doing this to us."
But Rose isn't alone. Students, the unemployed, people on low incomes and those who racked up massive debt during the economic boom are now starting to depend on Ireland's new community food banks to feed their families.
Councillor Brian Leech from the Anti Austerity Alliance in Tallaght, south Dublin told me the community food banks are drawing in Ireland's "new poor" who cannot manage from paycheque to paycheque. "Initially it was just people on benefits or low income who ran out of money at the end of the month. Now that's trickled down to middle income earners who are totally lost," he said. "The banks threw money at people during the boom, and now people are trying to pay it all back and feed their families. No one wants food banks, but people have to eat and the government isn't helping hungry people."
It's impossible to gauge how many unregistered food banks have popped up in Ireland during the recession, but they've now become lifelines for a huge chunk of the population.
As Rose explained: "When I lived alone, I was able to stock up. Things were tight, but I could manage. I would always have that point where there'd be a bill I couldn't pay, but I got by until I was suddenly responsible for putting food on the table for four people. Then I had to get help. It just takes one thing to push you to the breadline, and that's where we are in Ireland right now."
The promotional blurb for Bia – the country's biggest food redistribution centre – says that it's a "bridge for the redistribution of surplus food from Irish Food Businesses to charities throughout Ireland, while benefiting Ireland in the process for a real win-win-win!" But, of course, it wouldn't need to exist if there weren't losers from years of austerity, a lack of job creation and wage cuts. By giving money to the Bia project, it seems that the Irish government is resigning itself to the new status quo – where people can't afford to feed themselves. To many, it looks like the institutional acceptance of food banks.
Brian Leech feels that, in accepting help, we cannot overlook the root causes of poverty. "People need better lives, more income equality and jobs. The food banks are very important now, but we should all want a better future. We can't lose sight of the issues that are forcing people to go to food banks and forcing their very existence," he said.
As Valerie struggled to fill parcels, I asked her about Ireland's "new poor" and the food bank model. She stopped and sighed. "A man came in here last week. He drove up in a white van, was well dressed and well spoken," she said. "I could tell he was embarrassed, so I brought him into the office. He said he works full time but after bills that day he was left with €15 to feed his family for the week. He said his wife would die of shame if she knew he went to a food bank.
"Even though it's against policy, I put together an emergency parcel that will last him three days. I might never see him again – he's part of Ireland's new invisible poor, eking it out week to week. We shouldn't live in a world with food banks, but what can you do when people in here are hungry?"
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