The number of people experiencing food poverty in Ireland could fill Croke park five times over, a conference has heard.
According to the charity Healthy Food for All, almost half a million people in the country are affected by food poverty which is defined as the inability to afford or access healthy food.
Healthy Food for All is an all-island charity seeking to address food poverty by promoting access, availability and affordability of healthy food to low income groups.
Dr Miriam Owens, public health specialist at the Department of Health pointed to research which shows that socially disadvantaged household consume less balanced diets and suffer from higher rates of diet related chronic disease such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
Speaking at the conference, Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton said that social inequalities within Irish society have created a "health timebomb".
Ms Burton said a strong social protection system is a key protectant of health and that her Department would be spending around a quarter of a billion on family income supplement to support families on low incomes this year.
Ms Burton said ensuring a living wage for individuals and families is a key policy for her Department.
“As we exit the bailout, a living wage should be a dividend for people who have endured so much difficulties, reductions, cuts in expenditure and so on, during the period of the bailout from the time of the financial crash,” she said.
“The over riding policy of the Government is to increase employment but also to ensure as many individuals and families are on a living wage,” she said.
Ms Burton highlighted the importance of breakfast clubs in ensuring children get at least one nutritious meal a day.
She said they provided a social space for children and pointed to US research which showed that breakfast clubs aid cognitive development, improved educational outcomes and led to better rates of school attendance and participation.
Ms Burton said there is an additional €2 million from Budget 2013 to facilitate additional schools involvement in breakfast clubs and encouraged more DEIS schools to avail of the funding.
The conference also heard that one in five Irish children goes to bed or school hungry because there is not enough food in the house.
Healthy Food for All spokeswoman Marjo Moonen said that 13 per cent of children never have breakfast on weekdays. She said that while low income households may be aware of healthier options and had financial constraints, there are other factors at play.
“Can you get to the shop, can you make the right food choices or have the skills to prepare the food? These are issues that also need to be addressed,”said Ms Moonen.