A Fermanagh pastor says the dramatic uptake in usage of the food bank at his church is due to welfare reform changes.
Pastor John Shades of the Vineyard Lakelands Church was speaking following an investigation by the News Letter on the impact of Universal Credit in Northern Ireland.
The new benefit is gradually being phased in to replace six other benefits.
Figures from the Trussel Trust, which supports food banks across NI, show that usage in Co Fermanagh increased by a mammoth 159% last year.
Use of food banks in Co Antrim rose by 23% and Co Armagh by 10%, while it dropped in counties Londonderry, Down and Tyrone.
Mr Shades said: “There has been a major increase in our food bank usage which is partly down to the rise of Universal Credit. People have told us they are waiting up to 12 weeks plus for their first payment. Normally we support a family for four weeks but we can extend that.”
Another factor is that many people who were on Disability Living Allowance have had to apply for personal independence payments, but failed to qualify.
As a result they may be left without any benefits and have to take an interest-free loan while they reapply or appeal.
The vast majority of people the church helps come via partner agencies who assess them in advance for genuine need.
“We have seen some people who are absolutely destitute. One couple came to us for food and we found they had not had electricity for eight weeks,” said Mr Shades.
“We have also had professional families where one spouse has gone long-term sick and they end up struggling financially.”
Another key reason demand has spiked in Fermanagh, he said, is due to increased awareness on social media.
However, the pastor rejected any suggestion that he might be stimulating demand for the service.
“I think we are only scratching the surface. There are many outlying towns and villages in Fermanagh that have poor public transport links. If people were able to get to us more easily the figures could be much higher.
“Sometimes the naysayers say that people will take advantage of us. But if people with addiction problems ask for help I am not going to turn them away if it means that their children might go to school hungry.
“Last year we fed one in five people in Enniskillen. We gave out 2,500 food parcels to a town of 15-16,000 people.”