Lindsay Graham, Child Food Poverty Policy Advisor, explains why tackling holiday hunger is such an important goal for End Hunger UK.
Schools are the hearts of our communities. It’s where our children learn about our culture and values and start the journey towards being contributing citizens. At school they also access a variety of services that help to maintain their wellbeing, enhance their social skills and to achieve their full potential. One of those many vital services is the provision of a daily school meal.
The last 15 years has seen school food services in all four UK regions undergo some major policy changes to ensure that children’s nutrition at school is as good as it can be. With our escalating diet related diseases costing the NHS billions each year, food and access to good food for all has become a very important issue we must no longer ignore.
Access to good food is even more important for children in receipt of free school meals. A Free School Meal (FSM) is a statutory benefit available to school aged children from families who receive other qualifying benefits and who have been through the relevant registration process.
The FSMs are made available in term-time as a hot or cold nutritious balanced meal, 5 days a week with some schools also offer a breakfast.
Suffice to say there is a whole cohort of children from families who do not qualify for FSM as their incomes are just above the threshold set by government but could most certainly benefit from this type of family support. 66% of children living in poverty in the UK come from working families. For those families holiday times can also be a tangible stress point. The food bank networks tell us they see a marked increase in demand for help during school holiday periods.
But and here is the but…what happens when our schools close? When the schools close, so do the kitchens, the dining halls, the play grounds, the gym halls, the libraries, the IT suites, the medical rooms, classrooms and the gardens. For some of our children the school is their social safety net. In fact, prior to the introduction of Infant Free School Meals in England and Scotland there were approximately 1.7 million children registered for FSM in the UK.
So what happens to those 1.7 million FSM children and what is the impact of the holidays on their families?
Holidays are supposed to be carefree and fun for children but for many they are not. See this clip from the Childhood Trust and children living in poverty London and their thoughts on school holidays. https://vimeo.com/128382783
A lot of families get by and manage OK. Others don’t and it can be a real struggle to put food on the table. Food is the only part of a family’s budget that can be flexible and in tough times it is often the first cost to be cut.
The issue has become known in this country as ‘Holiday Hunger’. We know it exists and indeed we have known about it for over 100 years. There has to date, been no government support for families and children on this issue, no national programme, no helpline, no benefit, no policy or funding. However things are starting to look brighter. On January the 3rd this year the Welsh Government announced £500,000 to support lunch and fun clubs in Wales. This trailblazing positive commitment is one the other UK government regions should aspire to for a number of reasons.
In December 2014 and following the publication of the Feeding Britain report the All Party Parliamentary Group on School Food set up a Task Group to look at the issue of Holiday Hunger and try and find out more about it. The group worked on a short guide to setting up holiday meal projects. With the help of a survey administered by Northumbria University the group found 428 different projects in the UK helping to provide fun activities for children in the holidays (78% of which provided meals) The projects were taking place in schools, leisure centres, church halls and children’s centres. They were been run by faith groups, play workers, food bank volunteers, sports staff and school meal services. All on shoe string budgets. Some used food surplus from super markets, other used donated food from the public and some used school meal services whose food comes from their regular term time suppliers.
The task group found that while good food is absolutely essential to children’s wellbeing and the vital community support families need it is the additional activities and services being offered at holiday meal provision sites that can often help tackle child poverty effectively at a front line level.
The food provision is the key that brings communities together. It can be and is the catalyst for change.
The Holiday Hunger Task Group also found out the impact on families who struggle in the holidays.
- No Free School Meal and in some cases Breakfast.
- Increased pressure on family food budget
- Increased costs in Child care
- Increased Fuel bills (even cooking food has a cost)
- Social contact is diminished
- School readiness and learning decline
- Family Stress elevated
There are lessons to be learned from beyond our shores and USA is a country that we can look to for inspiration. In the states the Department of Agriculture started providing funding for ‘summer meals’ to low income children in 1968. It became law to provide these meals in 1989.
Summer meals are aimed at low income children and young people between the ages of 2 and 18 years and can be breakfast, lunch or supper. They are delivered in a variety of ways by school meal providers and community groups (called ‘sponsors’) who meet a set criterion for food safety and quality. The programme is well established, monitored and supported by federal funds. However most sites deliver only meals and may not always offer enrichment opportunities.
The UK has the opportunity to improve on this model by enhancing the meal provision with food education such as cooking, growing and other wellbeing activities like sport, dance and outdoor learning. We know from early research these club activities can help not only help keep children food secure but they can help them achieve when school returns.
Some good holiday provision projects that are seeing real results in Northern Ireland , Scotland, Wales and England are showing what can be done with community partnerships and minimal funding. There are great examples of the Faith and Business sectors that are also supporting the holiday provision movement.
The good news is that the issue of Holiday Hunger is solvable. In the last decade there has been huge investment in School kitchens and dining halls and food education is fast becoming a priority once again for our children and young people. I can think of no better use of those holiday spells when kitchens, dining halls, gardens, playgrounds and libraries in schools lie empty than to feed and enrich the lives of our children.
We live in one of the richest countries in the world and with the advent of social media our children are now global citizens. They are our future and we as adults have a duty of care to ensure that no matter what their circumstances their right to good food, education, health and play 365 days of the year is upheld.
Lindsay Graham is a Child Food Poverty Policy Advisor, and chaired the All Party Parliamentary Group on School Food’s Holiday Hunger Task Group from 2014 to 2016.