New research published by the Trussell Trust has laid bare the scale of food poverty in Northern Ireland.

According to the numbers outlined in Hunger in Northern Ireland, 16% of all adults (or their households) experienced food insecurity in the period between mid-2021 and mid-2022. That’s about 354,000 people.

The results are alarming, described by the Trussell Trust in stark terms: ‘This means that – at some point over this period – they have run out of food and been unable to afford more, and/or reduced meal size, eaten less, gone hungry or lost weight due to lack of money.’

Even more concerning is the contention that in spite of ‘the growth in the number of food parcels provided by the Trussell Trust network of food banks and by independent providers, more than two thirds of those experiencing food insecurity have not received food aid.

Food bank use therefore does not represent the entirety of need across the country, but rather those who have accessed this form of support – many more appear to be facing serious hardship without such help.’

In 2022, the Trussell Trust – alongside Carers NI and Age NI – took part in Inspire’s Release the Pressure campaign, which aimed to highlight resources and information available to those experiencing hardship. At the core of such hardship were rising interest rates and rising inflation. The resultant cost-of-living crisis hit individuals, families and communities hard.

Against the current backdrop of surging mortgage payments and rents, it shows few signs of easing – the levels of privation outlined in this new study are unlikely to have fallen by June 2023.

Dig into the study more deeply, however, and the effect of the prevailing situation on the most vulnerable becomes clear. While only 30% of the overall population is classed as disabled, that label applies to 61% of the people referred to food banks in the Trussell Trust system during the period studied.

The links between poverty and ill health are well established. One often feeds the other, creating a vicious cycle. Long-term conditions are more prevalent amongst the poorest households and low incomes can lead to unfavourable health outcomes.

The Trussell Trust report depicts an especially notable overrepresentation of people who are both managing mental illness and using food banks. Some 46% of survey respondents self-identifying as disabled were experiencing mental ill health, a marked contrast with the 17% of people in the same category throughout the community at large.

It’s important to remember that mental health and personal finances intersect in two main ways: changing employment circumstances when a person becomes unwell and the impact that can have on a person’s ability to make sound, informed decisions about money. This mix of uncertainty and precariousness brings with it unwelcome consequences.

The strain of deprivation – and there are few things more indicative of that social condition than actual hunger – has undoubtedly expanded to myriad households throughout Northern Ireland. It is now a significant driver of mental illness.

Last year, Inspire commissioned YouGov to carry out a poll of adults in Northern Ireland to understand the impact that the rising cost of living was having on their mental health. The findings illustrated the divergent relationship between positive wellbeing and poverty.

The Trussell Trust’s analysis advances our knowledge, evincing problems that are undoubtedly disturbing. And, yet, on the other hand, the data is key to opening up an essential level of understanding of food insecurity in Northern Ireland, of the people who find themselves most in need of support and assistance.

If we learn these lessons, we will all be better equipped to build a fairer and more resilient society. It should inspire the voluntary and community sector to continue speaking with one voice and pushing for essential, fundamental change.

For more information and resources relating to the cost of living, including details of local food banks, check out this section of the Community Wellbeing hub.