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‘Poverty has always been here and it’s not going away’

SOME families could be facing the stark choice of choosing between presents under the tree or food in their mouths this Christmas, a local clergyman has warned.

Pastor Graham McElhinney, of the Life Triumphant Church in Omagh, which has operated the Reach Foodbag Service for the last six years, said that food poverty had always existed locally but added that the problem had been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

He said, “With Covid, demand has skyrocketed this year compared to other years.

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“We started off with giving two or three bags out a month, to now we’re giving out probably 50 to 60 bags a month.

“That’s month in, month out.

“There’s other food banks in the council area that are giving out a lot more.

“People are struggling. Coming up to Christmas time, people want toys under the tree for the kids and will get themselves into difficulty and then they will struggle with food. It’s a big thing, but food poverty has always been here and it’s looking like it’s not going away any time soon.”

Pastor Graham said that there had been an upsurge in demand when the schools had been off, particularly during the extended two-week break over Halloween.

“Obviously there are school meals, and when those aren’t available, families then struggle again,” he said.

Each foodbag that the service hands out for a single person contains enough for five days of breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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After a person has received a third bag, Pastor Graham and his volunteers then ask the individual if they would like help with budgeting their money or checking if they are receiving the right benefits.

But the churchman said it wasn’t always people on benefits who were getting foodbags.

He said, “There’s a lot of people out there who have jobs and are struggling. The government’s giving people 80 per-cent of their wages, which is fantastic, but if it takes 100 per-cent of your wages to run your household you’re still going to be struggling.”

Every Christmas, Reach Foodbag Service also makes up a certain number of festive hampers that are then distributed by agencies such as Women’s Aid, First Housing and Action for Children.

Last year, in the week leading up to Christmas, Pastor Graham said that 54 foodbags were given out to families, while around 400 hampers were also distributed.

Acknowledging the extent of the food poverty issue in the local area, the pastor said, “There’s a lot of agencies out there working together trying to knock this on the head.”

He stressed that it was vitally important that people who were struggling knew that help was available.

“I’m here to help people out of a sticky situation. A lot of people find themselves in food poverty through no fault of their own,” Pastor Graham added.

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