USAGE of a Newtownards food bank over the festive period went up by almost 30% compared to last year.

The Newtownards food bank based at House Church on the Crawfordsburn Road, helped feed 1272 people in December 2023 compared to 988 in December 2022. This is a 28.7% increase.

Richard Porter, food bank manager, said it was sometimes like ‘organised chaos’ during December but that he thinks everyone was able to get the help they needed. He explained that if you looked at everyone’s family size, they helped feed 1,272 people in the local area.

“I think everybody got helped in the ways they needed to get helped, which was a good achievement, but it was really quite exhausting,” he said.

“It is really sad to see so many people at that time of year just needing that extra help. It wasn’t just food, it’s electricity and gas and other issues they are struggling with as well. It’s tough and then you long to have good conversations with people to help sign post them and we were able to have some but it’s limited when there’s so many clients. It starts to become an ‘in and out’ exercise which isn’t what we want but it was still a good experience.”

The food bank gave out 200 planned food parcels to families who were referred from partner agencies, and a further 200 to their ‘usual clients’. Although this is a similar figure to December 2022, Richard feels that this past December was even busier.

The food ban also has a limited fund to help clients with gas and electric bills and other issues they may face over the winter months.

Richard said they were also able to help 150 families with toys, either for their own children or to give as gifts. They also gave out meat and fruit and veg vouchers with every food parcel in December.

Through a donation drive from November to December, the food bank received 5.8 tonnes of food, however over the festive period they gave out 8.8 tonnes of food.

Stock levels have ‘taken a hit’ and with some items down to the last tin or bag, Richard is appealing for some items in particular to be donated.

“I’m hoping there will be a lag period so we can build up our stock again, our stock did take a hit, we got a massive 5.8 tonnes in December but we gave out a mega 8.8 tonnes of food,” he said.

“We’re down to two tonnes and some of the items are down to the last tin or the last bag at the moment.

“We are appealing for tinned cold meats, tinned hot meats like tins of stew or chilli, tea and coffee, pour on pasta sauces, dilute juice and tinned tomatoes. We are really really low on these things, the rest are manageable at the moment but we’ll keep an eye on things as it progresses.

“Things like tea, in the last 5 years we’ve not had a problem with a shortage of tea but for some reason we’re really struggling at the moment. The rest are the usual items we would struggle to get the numbers on. Every pack that goes out we replace another pack into a slot ready for the next client so you’re constantly taking off the shelves.”

Although last Christmas was hard, Richard and the volunteers at House Church are confident they will be able to keep up with demand and are offering a course to help people manage their money.

“Towards the end of January could become quite serious again in terms of need,” he said.

“I know people on benefits for a £300 help with their fuel at the end of November and I think the next government help is coming in February/March time. It is definitely a big lag period for folks who’ve just got over the festive period and here we are now the frosty days are with us. People are having to keep their heat on for longer. It’s going to be a tough month I think for folks.

“Some of the issues are budgeting and being wise with how you spend you’re income so we do have that life skills course starting on February 1, so this is a way we can help you make your money last just a bit longer. Make wiser decisions and do a bit of budgeting help with people.

“It’s also a good point of community and people who are struggling in the winter months, it’s a good place to come, have a bit of a chat and have a bit of community spirit during which can be solitary times for them.”

Richard wishes to thank all the volunteers for their efforts of the past few weeks, and says this wouldn’t be possible without them.

“The volunteers have been fantastic, I have 40 between all our different sessions in different roles and they have just been incredible over the last while,” he said.

“Honestly I couldn’t function without such people so it’s a real credit to them.”