THE Kilcooley social supermarket is facing an ‘unprecedented crisis’ as food poverty reaches a 30 year high with some local families ‘terrified of Christmas’.

The Kilcooley Pantry Service is currently working at maximum capacity to support 42 families from across the greater Bangor area with a further 28 families on a waiting list.

Run by the Kilcooley Women’s Centre team, the social supermarket recently ran out of food as an increasing number of two income families struggle to put food on the table because of the cost of living crisis. 

Alison Blayney, chief executive officer at Kilcooley Women’s Centre, is now calling for additional council support to help local families in need, as  demand has ‘skyrocketed’ for food and household items, such as cleaning products and toilet rolls which have doubled in price since last year.

“It is an unprecedented crisis, we have people queuing up outside waiting for deliveries,” said Ms Blayney.

“I have never known anything as bad. We have been here for 30 years and we have never experienced this level of need.

“We have people reaching out for support from all walks of life. It is only going to get worse particularly as we move into the winter. People are terrified of Christmas,” she added.

The social supermarket sells discounted food and fresh produce to families who can self-refer or can be referred by statutory agencies such as the Housing Executive or by a health visitor.

She explained the Kilcooley team had been championing the need for a social supermarket to help feed local families since 2015 but the local demands have steadily increased to ‘unprecedented’ levels.

Calling for more council support, Ms Blayney said: “We welcome the Hardship Fund that is being managed by the council but we are concerned this might not be available at the peak of the crisis over the Christmas period. It is a huge challenge.”

She also called for the council to review the social supermarket scheme currently running in Newtownards.

“We have been checking with the council and asking how long does the pilot scheme last? In this climate of the cost of living crisis is this not a timely period to review the pilot and have a social supermarket in both Bangor and Ards?

“We are trying to cover a huge region and we have demonstrated the huge need not just in Kilcooley but with people from across Bangor using our services.”

Ms Blayney raised concerns about the number of people currently on their waiting list seeking help.

“It is really hard when somebody comes up to the door,” she said. “It has taken a lot of courage to ask for help and for us to say we would love to help you and put you on a waiting list to feed you.

“The demand is not only food, it is for cleaning products, washing powder and toilet rolls that have all doubled in price since last year. It is all becoming a real challenge for some families and we haven’t really hit the really cold months.

“Such is the demand we ran out of food last Tuesday. We gave out the whole week’s supply in one afternoon and had to place an additional order to ensure the people who were coming in on Thursday had the items they needed.”

Ms Blayney explained the service also helps local families deal with the ‘underlying issues’ that led them into food poverty. “Families engage with our wrap-around service, so we would help with benefit checks and if it is a housing issue such as rent arrears.

“It is about looking at the underlying issues that have brought people into food insecurity and helping them to build up their resilience so they can exit the scheme. You don’t want to create another dependency.”

For families facing fuel poverty this winter, the Kilcooley team will also be distributing winter warmer packs in partnership with the Public Health Agency.

A council spokesman said the local authority is aware of the growing demand for services such as those provided by the Kilcooley Pantry Service and are processing applications to the council’s Hardship Fund as quickly as possible.

“This Hardship Fund was approved by council in September,” he said. “A call for applications was issued in late September and applications were assessed mid-October. “Recommendations for award are going to council for approval in November and will be available to successful applicants thereafter.”

The council did not comment when asked when a review of the social supermarket scheme in Newtownards would be held.