“When people first come into us, there’s a lot of embarrassment because there’s so much stigma around food poverty,” says Sharon Mullins, volunteer co-ordinator at Feed Cork.
The charity is a food bank run by a Christian outreach church, established in the city by Pastor Hamp Sirmans who is originally from Florida. He came to Cork in 2011 and set up Feed Cork in 2017.
On the first day of the food bank, Sirmans handed out five food baskets. Now more than 300 baskets are given to the needy every week. According to a Barnardos survey, the number of parents using food banks in Ireland more than doubled last year with 10 per cent of parents having used them or received a food donation.
Feed Cork, located on Lower Oliver Plunkett Street in the city, has about 50 active volunteers. The centre is only open to the public on Wednesdays and Thursdays for a couple of hours on each of the days but that requires the work of 35 volunteers.
To take the embarrassment away, there is a food hall in the spacious premises, which is particularly welcome for parents with children. “It’s like their mom or dad is just doing the shopping. It’s like a cashless shop. We just ask people to bring their own bags,” Mullins says.
Everyone who uses the service is registered. The information is shared only with the Fund for European Aid to the most Deprived (FEAD).
“We can go back to FEAD and say what type of people we’re looking after,” Mullins says.
The people we see come from all walks of life
Generally people come into Feed Cork by appointment although some just come in off the street. “The people we see come from all walks of life,” Mullins says.
In January 2022, more than 1,000 people were registered to use the service. “In January 2023, over 2,000 people were registered with us. It doesn’t mean they’re all using it at the same time. Some people come in every second or third week.”
Feed Cork checks in with Food Cloud every day to check on food waste and what is available from supermarkets. Food Cloud, set up to deal with food surplus, gives Feed Cork information on where to collect the food. “If there’s meat that can be frozen, we freeze it and give it out the next day,” she says.
Mullins says some people who avail of Feed Cork are working. “That’s just the way it is now. There’s a lot of personal debt. Covid played a big part in that and there’s the cost-of-living crisis. People are so stressed. You just don’t know what’s going on behind anyone’s door. The person you least expect could be in need.”
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Feed Cork, which is Garda-vetted, is dependent on donations. It has to pay a subscription to Food Cloud and the charity also has to buy a certain amount of food. It also has to keep two vans on the road to collect food, including a chill van donated by Tesco.
The charity is currently piloting an After School Fuel programme. In conjunction with some Deis schools, Feed Cork is removing the pressure on impoverished parents to provide food at weekends for their children. “A lot of the time, it is food that can be reheated. Brook Foods in Cork supplies the food. But we really can’t grow this programme unless we can get funding for it. We feel that Emma Byrd, who heads up After School Fuel, should have a part-time paid role.”
A welcoming café is on the premises of Feed Cork. “People on their own sometimes come in and have complimentary coffee and cake and a chat.”
Mullins says that the main reason Sirmans set up Feed Cork “is to keep people in their homes. We have people coming in who wouldn’t have a medical card. If they have to visit a doctor, that could cost €65 as well as a prescription. A lot of people don’t have emergency funding for things like this.”
You have to wonder how many parents are going to bed hungry having made sure that everything else is sorted
The Cork area president of St Vincent de Paul, Kate Durrant, says the charity doesn’t use the term ‘food bank’. It has a food distribution warehouse on the north side of the city. “From there, we distribute hampers with essential foodstuffs to families struggling with food poverty,” she says.
In the lead-up to Christmas 2022, “we sent hampers to over 2,500 families. On a weekly basis, we give hampers to over 800 people,” she says.
Within the greater Cork area, calls for assistance to the regional office during the last 12 months increased by 20 per cent to 16,500.
“Food poverty affects everybody. It can be young families struggling to pay the mortgage and having to pay all the other bills. When the mortgage or rent is paid and you’ve kept the lights on, food is one of the things you can sadly cut down on,” Durrant says.
“That leads to people really struggling to put food on the table. Parents are great. They will ensure the children are fed but you have to wonder how many parents are going to bed hungry having made sure that everything else is sorted.”
Durrant says one of the aims of St Vincent de Paul is to help people before they reach crisis point. “It could be someone about to lose their house or it could be that they’re starving.” She adds that there are people having to receive help now who never looked for it before.
“It must be very humbling. This isn’t charity. It’s an evening out [of means] from those who have to those who have too little. Unless we’re all doing okay, none of us is okay. So much of people’s income is going on rent and mortgages. It’s eclipsing any extra money for anything else. With the jump in energy bills, it’s just the perfect storm,” she says.