Food in Direct Provision

Image Credit: Metin Ozer

Aoife Rooney examines the appalling state of food in direct provision.

Direct provision has been the downfall of Ireland’s ability to ensure equal human rights to all who reside in the country in recent decades. While introduced as an emergency measure, the system is entering its 22nd year in operation, with the conversation surrounding basic human rights such as shelter, hygiene, and food at the forefront of discussions about what is wrong with centres around the country. There are many harrowing accounts of the living conditions that asylum seekers have no choice but to endure upon their arrival into Ireland - the issue of food an unacceptable contributor to the unsatisfactory lives thousands of people are forced to endure. As of 2020, there were nearly 7,500 adults and children living in direct provision in Ireland. 

Food is not a factor that residents in direct provision centres have any control over, with set meals and mealtimes enforced centre-wide. The food served to residents is largely of a poor standard. On a very basic level, much of the food is simply inedible. There have been reports of residents being served food that is no longer fit for consumption. This includes food past best before dates, food that has started to decompose, and burnt food. Past the fundamental demand that food served to guests be edible, there are many issues beyond this that speak to the general feeling of contempt towards asylum seekers being held in this limbo by the Irish State.  

As of 2020, there were nearly 7,500 adults and children living in direct provision in Ireland.

One of the major issues surrounding food that residents are facing is the fact that they have no choice but to eat the food that is presented to them. This should not pose a problem in theory; there are many allowances that can be made to accommodate the various dietary requirements and preferences people are likely to have. A clear issue has arisen in that both managers of centres and the contracted caterers are unwilling to provide a diverse menu in an attempt not only to cater to their residents, but to provide some variety in what is being consumed. While direct provision centres are State funded, they operate as businesses, contracting out catering roles to independent companies. Aramark is a US based company that provides catering services to three direct provision centres. They have been proven to provide poor quality food and service to residents of various centres, with many people opting to boycott Avoca and Chopped, two businesses that are owned by Aramark. The commercialisation of direct provision centres means a sacrifice in the level of quality being delivered to residents, with particular attention to the standard of food they are being served. 

While the overall quality of food is poor, it is the tip of the iceberg with regard to compounding issues surrounding food and nutrition. There are no alternatives to the food that is on the menu for residents, despite medical or dietary restrictions. One resident noted that for growing children, nutrition was especially poor, with one piece of fruit on offer each day, and a lot of food deep fried and processed. For groups the sheer size of those inhabiting all centres across the country, necessary considerations should have been taken in order to fulfil nutritional and health requirements.  

There have been reports of residents being served food that is no longer fit for consumption. This includes food past best before dates, food that has started to decompose, and burnt food.

Beyond ensuring someone is receiving the nutrition they need from food, there is no attempt being made to cater food to residents from a religious or cultural perspective. Food is such an integral part of so many religious and cultural celebrations, and residents should be afforded the right to celebrate how they see fit, including the eventuality that, what is true for most all calendar celebrations, food is often symbolic and plays an integral role in these events. 

Food is inherently linked to nostalgia and security for most people, and especially for those who find themselves in direct provision, who may have left their homes for fear of persecution, likely in Ireland for the very first time. Food can serve as an excellent source of comfort and solace, whether in the routine and method of cooking or baking, or the social aspect of eating with friends and family. To not only refuse to cater to the various nationalities that may be present in a centre, but to disallow residents to cook of their own accord is appalling. Much of the food served to residents is bland and unappetising, and there is no attempt being made to incorporate some of the cuisines from the nationalities represented by residents. While residents are not provided with facilities to safely and hygienically prepare food for themselves, there have been reported instances of people cooking in facility bathrooms, with many spending their weekly allowance of €38.80 on food. 

While residents cannot be prevented from spending their allowance on food, there is an intrinsic infantilisation apparent, with managers of centres stripping away a basic and mundane right to cooking facilities away from residents. There is no other State funded accommodation that is as culturally restrictive as that of direct provision. While this may seem low down the list of priorities for managers in these centres, it is undeniable that access to resources are well within the realm of human rights. While an argument can be made for the temporary halt to access to food that is preferable to residents, it only holds up if their stay in a direct provision centre is swift and they receive more permanent, private accommodation. The fact is, this is not happening - large percentages of those in direct provision have been living in unsuitable conditions for several years. 

Food plays a large role in this transition, a constant offer of warmth and sustenance, it is so often a reminder of home.

One social media post by a former resident of a Direct Provision centre described the unnecessarily cruel relationship residents had with food. The then-resident was once refused basic baking ingredients for a Home Economics practical by a manager of the centre, and ended up having to “go to school crying.” Their mother spent most of her weekly allowance paying for her ingredients - asylum seekers are not allowed to seek employment for the first six months of their residency in Ireland. Being denied extra food is a notable issue within centres, with one woman recalling how she was denied a slice of bread for her sick child because it was outside of a mealtime. Issues like these are not costly to remedy, but the severe lacking in compassion from both the Irish government and the contracted companies complicit in running direct provision centres makes it difficult to see how residents can be served their basic human rights. 

While the concept of a direct provision centre for an emergency period is not terrible - in theory it could look after people for a short period while permanent accommodation is being arranged; its execution is disgraceful. People are spending years of their lives eating poor food and living in poor conditions. Not only are asylum seekers entering Ireland under often distressing circumstances, but they are forced into a system that offers no incentive or opportunity to integrate and settle into life in Ireland. Food plays a large role in this transition, a constant offer of warmth and sustenance, it is so often a reminder of home; so having the access to cooking facilities and materials to recreate a small bowl of home is a right that should be granted to all who want it.