Breadline Voices: 'Children have turned up with empty lunch boxes'

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Laura Wheatley is a youth worker at Oasis Youth Centre in Portadown, Northern Ireland, which works with black and minority ethnic young people and helps up to 1,000 families a year as part of the Community Intercultural Programme.

"Ever since the pandemic, the increase in families needing support in terms of food has been incredible.

"Lots of families we support are food factory workers on zero-hour contracts. 

"When Covid hit we had 15-20 Portuguese families alone having food packs delivered weekly on top of an average 5-10 from other nationalities.

"We would get calls from our community navigators, so we have Romanian, Lithuanian, Polish, Portuguese, and Bulgarian families needing help to buy oil or pay their electricity bills and it hasn’t really stopped since the pandemic ended.

"Some of the stories you hear are devastating… families where one parent has just upped and left the children behind, and the remaining parent doesn’t have a job but also can’t work because their children are too young.

"They’ve no support system because all their family are maybe in Bulgaria or Romania and they’re literally on their own. We do what we can, but we need the government to step in and do something.

"We also had a family that had to move house because their landlord was selling their home and there’s two adults and four children who moved into a house full of damp and mould, but it’s the only house that met their budget. Their two eldest children sleep on sofa beds because they can’t afford single beds for them. 

"Every session we do at Oasis always has a meal in it for a child so that’s our main focus, making sure kids get a meal while they are here.

"We’ve had a 13-year-old child come in and ask: ‘What is there to eat?’ because they said there’s not much food at home.

"There’s such a stigma around asking for help some parents would rather go without and they send their children to us because they know that while they’re here they’ll get something to eat. It’s really heart-breaking.

“There’s also a real issue at the minute with families trying to get their EU resettlement to stay in the UK. That deadline has now passed and the area in which we work in has the highest number of EU resettled people, even higher than Belfast, our capital city.

"We've had over 25,000 people applying for resettlement, but we still have families arriving that can’t get it.

"And if you’re not EU resettled, you’re not entitled to benefits, you’re not entitled to work, your children aren’t entitled to Free School Meals, so many rely on the Community Intercultural Programme to support them.

"But how sustainable is that for us in the long run when they’re relying on groceries from us weekly?"

This is part of Breadline Voices, a series from The Food Foundation highlighting the realities faced by millions of families plunged into food and fuel poverty as food prices reach a 40-year high.

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