Going to bed hungry: Parents are ‘doing without’ food as cost-of-living crisis hits

After years of steady declining, food poverty in Ireland has shot up.

By Cormac Fitzgerald

ON A FRIDAY evening at the end of September, as crowds streamed up and down O’Connell Street in Dublin in the autumn sun, a queue was forming.

A group of over a hundred people stretched from the columns of the General Post Office (GPO) down and around the corner onto Henry Street. There were single men and women along with families, there were young students and older people, Irish and non-Irish alike.

Everyone was waiting for the soup kitchen – run by the Muslim Sisters of Éire – to start serving. At about 6pm, volunteers from the registered charity started to unload a white van parked around the corner on nearby Prince’s Street. 

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Quickly and efficiently, the 10 or so volunteers set up tables outside the front of the GPO and loaded them with hot and cold food: ready made meals, different fruit and vegetables, crips, sandwiches, bottled water, tubs of ambrosia rice, loaves of bread and more. 

By 6.10pm, the queue was moving past the tables as the volunteers handed out the food and supplies.

SK1 Volunteers unloading the van on Prince's Street.
Source: Cormac Fitzgerald

“Especially when I was on the streets, I wouldn’t eat if they weren’t there. You rely on them,” said Sarah*, as she stood nearby feeding her one-year-old daughter.

Sarah used to sleep in a tent on O’Connell Street, and said the soup run and others like it had been an essential lifeline for her.

Now she lives in supported accommodation with her daughter outside of the city centre, but still travels into town regularly for food and supplies that she would not be able to afford otherwise.

“You can get everything here. Bread and everything, sweet potatoes and carrots so I can make that when I get home for her,” she said. 

The price of everything has gone up, and there’s a lot more people using it than before. 

Sarah is among an estimated hundreds of thousands of people across the country that are not getting enough nutritious food to eat.

In advance of Budget 2024, our GOING TO BED HUNGRY project finds food poverty is a growing problem in Ireland, with experts telling Noteworthy that more State action is urgently needed. 

Food poverty is more than going hungry

While many people go hungry due to food poverty, it also has a range of negative social and physical effects.

Lower income families may only be able to afford cheaper, ready made or easily cooked food that is high in sugar and salt content. This food has poor nutritional value and can lead to inadequate nutrient intake and higher levels of excess weight.

According to safefood - who promote healthy eating - this results in health complications like heart disease and type 2 diabetes, both of which are on the rise in Ireland.

Food poverty can also have an impact on mental health through people’s inability to participate socially through food, creating stigma and social withdrawal.

SK5 Volunteers from the Muslim Sisters of Éire set up tables with food outside the GPO.
Source: Cormac Fitzgerald

For vulnerable families, not having enough adequate food can also have negative effects on parents’ ability to cope as well as on their children’s emotional and physical development. 

According to Stephen Moffatt, National Policy Manager with children’s charity Barnardos, food poverty can greatly exacerbate issues that may already be present in the household.

“With families that we would support dealing with this issue, it increased stress, increased anxiety, [with] parents telling us they are struggling to go to sleep, because of worries around this,” he said.

If you have additional issues on top of that – you might already have had parental mental health issues… [or] parental separation tensions within the home – that sort of thing. This only exacerbates that further.

Almost half a million people in need

While there is no official indicator of food poverty in the country, the government uses a measure developed by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) which defines it as “the inability to have an adequate and nutritious diet due to issues of affordability or accessibility”.

This measure is captured by analysing data from the Central Statistics Office’s (CSO) annual Survey of Income and Living Conditions. Respondents are asked whether their household is:

  • Unable to afford a meal with meat / vegetarian equivalent, every second day.
  • Unable to afford a weekly roast dinner / vegetarian equivalent
  • Missing one substantial meal in the last fortnight due to lack of money

In 2021, the latest year for which combined figures are available, 8.9% of those surveyed experienced food poverty, representing 445,890 people. As food poverty is an extension of poverty, it affects people from marginalised and disadvantaged backgrounds more.

Over the last decade, food poverty in Ireland peaked in 2013 while the country was still in the midst of the recession driven by the financial crisis. Since then, it fell steadily until 2018 when it started to grow, with a significant spike in 2020.

This spike was likely driven by the Covid-19 crisis and subsequent lockdowns. Those providing services on the ground say that there has been a large rise in people looking for food since 2020.

“We’re actually getting more [people] since Covid,” said Lorraine O’Connor, founder and chairperson of the Muslim Sisters of Éire (MSOÉ). 

“Pre-Covid the highest we would hit was about 250 meals a week… and now at one stage the highest we ever had was 650 meals, and those meals are gone within an-hour-and-a-half.

Last Friday, we gave out in and around the 400 mark.

lorraine-oconnor-2 Lorraine O'Connor said demand for the food MSOÉ gives out has grown.
Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Increase in parents using food banks

There are other measures of food poverty in Ireland which show the rising strain facing families and individuals in meeting their nutritional needs, particularly in the context of the cost-of-living crisis.

A survey by Barnardos and supermarket retailer Aldi in February found that almost 30% of parents said they had skipped meals or reduced portion sizes so that their children would have enough to eat last year.

Meanwhile, one in 10 parents (10%) said they had used food banks over the previous 12 months, more than double the number from the previous survey (4%).

By most metrics of the survey, the situation has worsened considerably for households.

The ongoing cost-of-living crisis, driven first by supply line issues as a result of the Covid-19 crisis and later by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has also had an impact on people’s ability to afford enough healthy food. This has been exacerbated by historic levels of rising inflation.

According to the results of the survey, more than one in eight (13%) respondents said they were always worrying about their ability to provide their children with sufficient food, compared to 6% in the previous year.

These results are supported by research carried out by safefood, which found that last year some households spent up to one third (32%) of their take home income each week on food.

Source: Based on research by safefood/Infographic: Noteworthy

Prices of all foods have also shot up over the last few years. According to the CSO’s Consumer Price Index from August this year, food prices rose by an average of 8% over the previous 12 months, and by 18% since August 2021.

There have also been huge increases in the cost of household heating and electricity bills.

Stephen Moffat said that the results of the Barnardos survey show that more parents are “going without” themselves as a result of the cost-of-living crisis, and sacrificing their own nutrition in order to ensure their children can eat enough. 

“[Parents] can see that their standard of living has diminished, where they have to be really concerned around the amount of food they have and the other essential expenditure as well,” he said.

“If you’re doing that over a consistent period of time… that constant grind can really impact and affect parents’ self-esteem.

“Not being able to provide themselves or their children with what they want in terms of just a basic necessity… that grinds and wears parents down, and they do feel shame for that. And that’s not positive for parents or for a child.”

Government support includes school meals

The government published its Roadmap for Social Inclusion 2020-2025 at the start of 2020, with the goal of “reducing the number of people in consistent poverty in Ireland and increasing social inclusion for those who are most disadvantaged”.

There is a commitment in the roadmap to “develop a comprehensive programme of work to further explore the drivers of food poverty and to identify mitigating actions”.

The Roadmap was published before the Covid pandemic hit Ireland and the subsequent spike in food poverty. Last July, the government published its Report on Food Poverty, which looked into the available programmes, schemes and supports on offer.

The report found that in 2021 the government spent €89 million on measures that “directly addressed food poverty”, while it spent €399 million on “broader schemes that include a food poverty aspect”. 

The government includes a wide range of measures in these broader schemes, such as the general Student Grant Scheme (valued at €166 million in 2021).

In relation to schemes that directly address food poverty, that vast majority (€78 million) came from the Department of Social Protection (DSP). From this, €65 million went to the School Meals programme, which funded food for children in 1,506 DEIS schools in 2021. Within this, €24.5 million was specifically used for Hot School Meals.

As of this month, the Hot School Meals Scheme has been extended to all DEIS schools, with the government committing to providing hot meals for all primary school children by 2030. 

river - 2023-09-29T114746.139 Minister of State Joe O’Brien who has responsibility for tackling food poverty.
Source: RollingNews.ie

The working group has also commissioned research to analyse the prevalence, drivers, and actions to address food poverty in two case study areas. While Minister of State Joe O’Brien said in 2022 that this research was expected to be completed by last year, a DSP spokesperson told Noteworthy that research is “expected to be completed shortly”.

The spokesperson also said that a €400,000 pilot programme of appointing caseworkers to people experiencing food poverty started last month in the cities of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway and will run for 18 months.

“Government is keenly aware of issues in relation to food poverty, and these issues will form a critical input into the wider consideration of Budget 2024,” the spokesperson said.

While government measures have been welcomed by Barnardos and many advocacy organisations, the Association of Childhood Professionals (ACP) – a group representing those working in early years care and education – criticised the fact that this rollout would not apply to pre-school settings. 

In response to this criticism, the Department of Children said that all early learning and care services must by law provide some level of snacks and meals depending on the length of time a child attends.

The Department “is currently in the process of developing an additional meals programme for early learning and care services working in areas of concentrated disadvantage”, a spokesperson said.

As for the remainder of the DSP spend, close to €10 million went on a Meals on Wheels programme, employing people to provide meals to older or disabled adults across the country.

Though, as the National Meals on Wheels Network points out, the Meals on Wheels service is not underpinned by legislation or specific funding, meaning the service is not guaranteed for people.

“Currently, there is no legal entitlement to receive or obligation on the State to provide meals-on-wheels to older people,” the network says on its website.

As a result, there is no clear direction regarding who should be responsible for the support and development of the sector.

The remaining €4 million of the DSP funding for food poverty in 2021 came from the European Social Fund Plus, an EU-wide programme aimed at addressing the most basic needs of highly disadvantaged groups.

Progress welcome but more action needed

Stephen Moffatt of Barnardos is supportive of recent government initiatives to tackle food poverty, but said that more needed to be done.

“The Free School Meals programme is really, really excellent. What’s happened over the last number of years, rolling it out, has been really positive,” he said.

They need to continue to respond to children directly, what their needs are, make sure that what’s there is as nutritious as possible, and that children are getting as much as they can out of it. 

Moffatt said the government should also look into providing meals in a community setting for lengthy periods, like during the summer holidays, when children are out of school.

While he welcomed some of the measures put in place, Moffatt said that families are feeling more pressure as food has become more expensive and household bills have skyrocketed in recent years.

“Obviously, a lot of this comes back to income,” he said. Barnardos has been focusing on issues that parents have highlighted to them – mainly “just not having sufficient income to cover the food costs for their entire family,” he added.

“Which means obviously, themselves as well, not just their children.”

Moffatt also said that social welfare payments needed to be increased in line with inflation.

Barnardos is calling for a €25 increase to the standard social welfare payment in Budget 2024, as well as a rise to the Increase for a Qualified Child (IQC) by €15 for over 12s and €10 for under 12s.

Back outside the GPO just over a week ago, MSOÉ volunteers worked hard handing out food as the queue moved slowly forward. Nearby, Sarah fed her daughter and watched as more and more people joined to be fed.

“The amount of people using it is unreal, but because of her I don’t have to wait in the queue,” she said, smiling down at her daughter who had the small wooden spoon she was being fed with clamped between her mouth.

“I thought it would put off a lot of people having to queue but sure look how many people have been queuing here for the last hour… That shows how much they need it.”

*Sarah’s name has been changed to protect her identity


Is the State tackling food poverty?

By Cormac Fitzgerald for Noteworthy

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