Life on the breadline


A recent report on food poverty indicates that one in ten people in Limerick do not have enough to eat. Limerick Post’s Alan Jacques takes a look at life on the breadline.

food-poverty-4-475x500IT was Franz Kafka who once said “so long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being”.

A recent survey then, estimating one in ten Irish people to suffer from food poverty, leaves nothing but big bold question marks.

Trade unions Mandate and Unite last month issued, ‘Hungry for Action’, a startling report indicating that 450,000 Irish people do not have enough to eat. The figure for Limerick revealed that 18,500 in the city and county suffer from food poverty – that’s 9.6 per cent of the local population.

Based on 2010 data from the Department of Social Protection, these estimates, if anything, are likely to be conservative — especially considering general deprivation rose by eight per cent in 2011.

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The report defines food poverty as “someone that missed a meal in the last fortnight because of a lack of money” or it may mean, “they cannot afford a meal with meat or the vegetarian equivalent every second day or afford a roast or vegetarian equivalent once a week”.

By estimating county levels based on average incomes and comparing them to national averages in the same year, the trade unions’ research suggests food poverty is less of an issue in urban centres such as Limerick, Galway, Cork and Dublin than it is in places like Offaly, Donegal and Monaghan.

Still, the figures for people living in food poverty in Limerick City and County is nothing to be celebrated.

Mandate general secretary John Douglas commented, “Those suffering food poverty may be lone parent families; they may be the newly unemployed; they may be pensioners – and they may be people in work, struggling to survive on low wages.”

Findings in the ‘Hungry for Action’ survey also reference “in-work poverty” as a significant component of overall poverty. Nearly one-in-five people at work were officially categorised as “deprived”.

Regional secretary of Unite, Jimmy Kelly, likened food poverty in Ireland to a “man-made disaster” brought on by austerity and the collapse in incomes in its wake. Mr Kelly’s union is now calling for an increase in the minimum wage from €8.65 to €9.20 per week.

“The cause of food poverty will only be addressed by starting to increase the incomes of the most deprived in our society,” Mr Kelly believes.

Unite and Mandate unions are also calling for an ’emergency relief budget’ to start reversing cuts to low-income groups which have seen food poverty increase dramatically since the start of the economic crisis.

They propose measures which, they claim, would have an immediate impact on poverty alleviation including a €6 per week increase in social protection rates and the reversal of some of the most egregious cuts such as rent supplement to those most at risk of food poverty.

In recent times, increasing levels of food poverty have been reflected in the growing demands on charities providing food relief.

The Society of St Vincent de Paul, alone, is spending half a million euro on food in Limerick city each year. Calls for assistance to the charity has more than doubled since 2009 and continues to increase year on year.

The Society’s regional President Michael Murphy said the bulk of this assistance goes to helping families with food, heating and education costs. Last Christmas, St Vincent de Paul distributed 2,000 food hampers to struggling families in the city.

“The families we visit are not just those on social welfare, they include people in low-paid employment and those with debts that they cannot handle,” said Mr Murphy.

“I started working with the Samaritans in Limerick back in the hungry 1980s and things are definitely much worse now that they ever were back then.

“In the eighties, nobody had anything anyway. There’s a greater desperation now and people are living on a knife-edge. They have gotten themselves into so much debt that they see no way out and don’t have the option of immigrating like they had 30 years ago,” he said.

Limerick-born and raised, I was completely unaware that St Vincent de Paul has a drop-in centre off Hartstonge Street in the city. I was even more surprised to find out its been open for ten years, providing soup, sandwiches and teas and coffees to those most in need.

“Those who most need this service know its here. It’s not something we’ve really needed to advertise as the word has gotten out through the grapevine. The drop-in centre is open six days a week from Monday to Saturday and the numbers availing of it have doubled since the recession hit. When we opened first we would see around 40 people coming in each day. Now that’s doubled to around 80 or 90,” the SVP’s regional president told me.

When I visited the city drop-in centre one wet January afternoon it was bustling with life.

In one corner, a mother and father sat helping their two young children with homework, a pair of old fellas were engrossed in chat over a cup of tea in another, and down the back a hungry young couple tucked eagerly into their toasted sandwiches. The centre was bright, welcoming and clean. I half expected it to stink of urine and to find myself tripping over street drinkers, but instead it was filled with a sense of camaraderie among ordinary people struggling through life’s daily toils.

The atmosphere reminded me of wartime movies with blitz-battered Londoners rallying together and just getting on with it despite the hardships life had thrust upon them. I was only sorry I hadn’t been aware of the centre myself during times when I was out of work and money was tight.

If the old saying that ‘we are what we eat’ is true, then one in ten Irish people are barely even existing, don’t mind living.

There’s no doubt people are hurting out there right now so new figures indicating that 18,500 people in Limerick City and County suffer from food poverty should come as no real surprise to any of us.

But, that almost 10 per cent of our local population should go without even a single meal just to make ends meet is indicative of all that is wrong with this country of ours in January 2014. There’s nothing that makes me more angry.

Holocaust victim Anne Frank once described hunger not as a problem, but as an “obscenity”. And the fact that Limerick people are struggling to stay afloat to such a degree that they are deprived of the very basics for living is simply that — OBSCENE.

We are not talking about people faced with war, famine or some catastrophic act of God, but people living in Ireland’s National City of Culture and all across the land who cannot afford to eat properly.

Fair enough, we don’t have it half bad compared to peoples’ suffering in some far-flung corners of the globe.

But still, it’s all relative, and on our own doorsteps, in our own backyard, in the year 2014, people are silently going to bed at night hungry. And our own Government’s indifference, fruitless promises and constant bombardments with crippling cutbacks do not and will not fill empty bellies.

Food poverty is one of the harshest realities of the times we live in.

I was out of work for three years and at times, experienced food poverty firsthand. In this situation, where money is tight and bills have to be paid, food becomes not the first issue to be addressed, but the last.

You can just about feed yourself on social welfare payments or low-income wages and scrimp by, but all it takes is one unforeseen expenditure; an unexpected utility bill, medical emergency or car breakdown and meals will be lost. There is no room for manoeuvre and no scope for error. Survival is the name of the game and families are out there living on breakfast cereal so they can keep their children in school and a roof over their heads.

Michael Murphy of St Vincent de Paul told me that families are struggling to such an extent that parents will go without food just so their children might eat.

I remember from my own darkest days in unemployment, going through bad weeks where frozen pizzas at €2 a pop became a staple part of my diet. Not the healthiest, unless you are a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle!

But there’s nothing funny about not having enough money to be able to put food on the table for you and your family.

Last year around 4,000 meals were distributed to the needy in Limerick city through Novas Initiatives’ soup run.

Seven days a week, 365 days a year, volunteers from the homeless charity dish out food on O’Connell Street; generously provided by the Greenhills Hotel and Foodcourt Catering. The street outreach service supports people who are homeless and also provides sustenance for those living in their own homes, struggling to get by.

Novas development officer Una Burns told the Limerick Post, that for some on the breadline, this vital service stops them from having to make the unthinkable choice between eating or keeping a roof over their heads.

“Not all those in receipt of food are homeless. For some, this hot meal makes the difference between being able to continue to pay rent and being on the streets,” she revealed.

In stark contrast, the Environment Department of Limerick City and County Council this month launched a Stop Food Waste Resolution to help reduce the estimated €700 worth of food that is thrown away by Irish families each year.

And without going all Bob Geldof preachy, the words of St Augustine do seem quite apt here: “Find out how much God has given you and from it take what you need; the remainder is needed by others.”