The number of people accessing soup kitchens across Ireland has quadrupled in just eight months.

More than 2,000 free meals are being handed out every week by the charity, Twist Soup Kitchen Ireland, which runs five outlets across the country, along with several mobile services to struggling single mothers.

Up to November last year when the charity's founder Ollie Williams was running just one premises in Galway city, fewer than 80 people a day were using the service.

But he said an average of five new people, who have fallen on hard times, join the ever-increasing queues for free meals every week.

And Williams, who set up the service in June last year, said poverty levels amongst families have reached such high levels that he now plans to launch a service in every single county in the country.

Last month he opened his sixth outlet in Loughrea, Co. Galway, which, like the others, is staffed by volunteers and serves food donated by local suppliers and businesses.

But he said in the meantime he anticipates even further demand for free meals at his existing premises, which also include Athlone, Roscommon, Sligo and Tuam in Co. Galway.

The 46-year-old father-of-two, from Athenry, Co. Galway, said: "We've had a big jump in numbers, but that's the way things are going.

"We've identified areas which need them and I can only see the numbers using the service increasing in the near future because so many people have lost their jobs and fallen on hard times.

"What's happening now is that I'm getting calls from people around the country, asking me to start a soup kitchen in their area. The demand for it is bigger than ever."

Williams, a certified cook who now spends much of his time preparing the meals in his various outlets, said his service - which receives no government funding - wouldn't have survived to date without the help of local traders.

Earlier this year a generous businessman donated him a €30,000 refrigerated lorry, which has allowed him to deliver food to the growing number of hard-up single mothers that have turned to the charity.

He said: "I've noticed the number of single mothers has shot up particularly since we set up, but we get every walk of life in here. We see a good number of students, who'd previously have been able to get summer jobs. There's also lawyers, architects, in fact a complete cross-section of society.

"But, as I've said before, there's no shame in going to a soup kitchen. Any of us could fall on hard times at any moment and we make a point of never questioning anyone who comes here, because they should feel absolutely no need to explain themselves."

Williams, a qualified pilot, says his life now couldn't be more different than during the boom when he chauffeured the rich and famous through his helicopter company.

The philanthropist has previously explained that it was his own nightmare experience of finding himself homeless and hungry when he first emigrated to London in his mid-teens that propelled him to one day devote his time and finances to Ireland's new poor.

He recalled: "It was Centrepoint, a soup kitchen in Soho in London, that came to my rescue. I was very fortunate, as they took me in, gave me a nice meal and some advice and put me on the right track.

"I always said that I would do the same in my country as a way of giving something back. Thankfully, we receive tremendous support from local butchers and food suppliers and we're able to produce a good hot meal, like a beef stew or lamb casserole, every day for free to anyone who needs it."

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