Children going hungry in our own country
Families in at least 20 Dublin parishes not getting enough to eat
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin: “I have heard of teachers themselves bringing food to supplement individual children in their class who come to school hungry.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Some people have asked why it is that in the face of the extraordinary demands for relief for people affected by disasters in the Philippines, Syria and various parts of Africa, I launched an appeal to collect non-perishable food to be distributed in Dublin.
Surely, people say, you cannot place these needs on the same level as those of worldwide disaster relief. Some would even contest that there is a problem of access to healthy food in our own country at all.
The facts are simple. In about 20 parishes in the archdiocese of Dublin, the demands for simple wholesome food from individuals and especially from families and their children are not being met.
For the past number of months, for example, the Crosscare Food Bank of the Dublin archdiocese has not been able to keep up with demand. Last year, they gave out 500 tonnes of food. So far this year they have needed 750 tonnes.
Despite our current economic crisis, Ireland is still a very wealthy country.
There is a strange contradiction in the fact that vast quantities of food are being wasted and dumped when people need that same food. Much of the food that comes to the Crosscare Food Banks would otherwise have ended up on landfills.
The demand for nutritious food affects many sectors of society and many areas where one would not expect to find poverty.
There is a great precariousness in many people’s lives. I know everybody is struggling, but there are families who one year ago could look after themselves and who are now coming once a week for food.
In today’s wealthy Ireland, there is a growing number of children and young people who are not able to access basic healthy nourishment.
A survey carried out earlier this year by the Irish Primary Principals’ Network of almost 650 primary school leaders found more than one in five reporting a rise in pupils arriving to classes hungry, to the extent that such children could no longer properly access the curriculum.
I hear this repeated all over the place.
I have heard of teachers themselves bringing food to supplement individual children in their class who come to school hungry.
The university chaplains speak of students cutting back on food in order to cover their living expenses. The elderly are forced to make heart-rending choices.
We all hope that, with our exit from the bailout and from this particularly difficult period of economic challenge, things will change. But the current situation is harsh and it will not change overnight. Indeed, new burdens are falling on people with children.
When I visited one of Crosscare’s Food Banks last week, I found the shelves were empty.
There’s a large freezer room which would normally be stocked up and it is only half full. The workers told me they could open two or three new centres tomorrow but for the fact that the food is just not there.
The church’s task is to mobilise people in our communities and that is why I am asking parishes to help. The Christian faith is a faith which challenges believers to reach out and to share. A Christian concept of sharing means noticing and embracing and supporting.
Not seeing inequities
Despite our ongoing economic challenges, Ireland is still a wealthy society. A wealthy society always runs the risk of not seeing or of not fully grasping the shadows and the inequities around us.
We can so easily get caught up in our own concerns, placing them first, that we do not notice that our sight has become blurred towards poverty and suffering.
The poor rarely clamour. They just try to survive. When they cry out, the ears of the mainstream may well be too distracted to hear them.
The Food Bank is a unique way of fostering sharing. It is a way of addressing the extraordinary waste of food which is one of the characteristics of wealthy societies and placing that food at the service of those who really need it. It is a unique model of solidarity.
Solidarity is vital for our society. Giving time or money, or something we have such as food, is what builds up the true roots of society.
Ireland needs a vital civil society where citizens take the lead in innovative ways of solidarity. The followers of Jesus Christ should be in the forefront of that drive for a different society, not just commenting from the sidelines, but through concrete and direct sharing. This Crosscare initiative is one simple way of doing that.
People who wish to help can donate non-perishable food items through their local Dublin parish every weekend in December.
Rev Dr Diarmuid Martin is Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin