In an excerpt from our new report Why End UK Hunger?, Researchers Rebecca O’Connell, Abigail Knight and Julia Brannen, alongside Alison Garnham from Child Poverty Action Group, explain why we must end child food poverty.
Food is fundamental to children’s health, education, sense of self-worth and social lives. But as poverty has risen, families with children are among the hardest hit. Over four million children in Britain are growing up in poverty, with many at risk of going without nutritious or adequate food.
Our book Living Hand to Mouth shines a spotlight on children’s experiences of food and eating in low-income families and sets out why action is needed.
We interviewed 51 children and young people aged 11 to 15 years, and their parents or carers, in 45 low-income families living in two areas with high levels of deprivation – an inner London borough and a coastal town in south east England. Around half the families were in low-paid work and just under half relied on benefits. In a handful of cases, parents’ immigration status meant they could not be in paid work and had no recourse to public funds (NRPF), meaning they were ineligible for benefits, including free school meals.
Children and young people in different types of families told us about their experiences of going hungry because of a lack of food at home, going without nutritious food like fruit, not having enough to eat at school and being left out of the social activities that many teenagers take for granted. Lack of money and food cause children physical pain, feelings of guilt and shame and a sense of social exclusion:
“Sometimes you don’t have enough energy, you cannot cope in the classroom so you have to like try and rest a bit. You just put your head on the table and you end up falling asleep in the classroom and you get in trouble for it.”Emmanuel, age 14, in a three-child, lone-parent family with NRPF, inner London
Faith, age 15, in a four-child, lone-parent family with a father who works full-time for the NHS, inner London
“I don’t want to show them that, no I don’t have enough money [to eat out with friends]. I say to them, ‘No, I don’t really want to come.’”
Parents in low-income working families, as well as those not in work, skipped meals so their children could eat:
“… as long as the kids are fed, we don’t care about us. We’ll sit, we’re happy to just sit there and have toast every evening, so we do cut back a lot.”Mother, careworker on a zero-hours contract, lives with partner in full-time food retail and two children, coastal town
But whilst parental sacrifice protects some young people from the direct effects of food poverty, children live with its indirect consequences:
“If there isn’t enough food, we’ll get it and sometimes mum will go hungry and starve and stuff. Even if it’s not that much food for me and [brother], it’s enough that we’ve actually had something, whereas mum hasn’t, and it gets a bit to the point where we’ll start feeling guilty because mum hasn’t had anything and we’ve had it.”Bryony, age 13, in a two-child, unemployed lone-parent family, coastal town
Free school meals should be part of the solution, but are sometimes delivered in a discriminatory and stigmatising way. They are also not usually available to children in families claiming Universal Credit where parents earn above £142 a week, or to children whose parents have NRPF. Some young people told us their allowances do not buy enough to fill them up and that they are made to feel ashamed:
“… when she [lunchtime staff] was like, ‘You can’t get that, you’re free school meals’ like I was really embarrassed ‘cos people were waiting behind me, I was kind of like ‘Oh my God’… And it’s like you’re really restricted to what you can eat with free school meals… so now I just get what I know I’m safe with… so a small baguette and carton of juice.”Maddy, age 16, in a lone-parent unemployed family, inner London
Based on our research, we argue that healthy free school meals should be available to all children at school and provided as part of the normal school day, to mitigate some of the effects of poverty on children’s health and education. Moreover, solutions to food poverty must address its root causes: low and irregular wages, inadequate benefits and the high costs of essentials that leave parents struggling to make ends meet:
“I don’t know it’s kind of like parents’ [responsibility to make sure the family eats well] isn’t it, but then parents can’t really supply you with food if they don’t have like a good job, like good work and pay.”Charlie, age 15, in a two-child unemployed lone-parent family, inner London
The government should use Minimum Income Standards research to ensure family incomes – from wages and benefits in combination – are adequate for a socially acceptable standard of living that recognises the fundamental role of food in health, education and social inclusion (see ‘A health crisis is a social crisis’ by M Marmot, in British Medical Journal 365:l2278 (2019)).
Food poverty and its effects on children’s and young people’s physical and emotional wellbeing constitutes a health and social crisis. In the face of piecemeal responses and government neglect, the outlook is set to remain bleak. Radical change is needed.
Rebecca O’Connell, Abigail Knight and Julia Brannen, Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education
We should not have to talk about child food poverty, and it is a matter of enormous shame that we have to. That children should suffer the stress and anxiety of not having enough to eat, to be poverty-shamed at school to get a meal and still be hungry, to have to accompany stressed and anxious parents to food banks and late-night shopping for low-cost food bargains, is a stain on our society.
Child poverty, since 2010, has risen by 500,000 to 4.1 million and rising. Since 7 in 10 poor children live with a working parent, the proportion entitled to and receiving free school meals has been falling just as in-work poverty has been rising – universal free school meals for all are long overdue. Why means-test the middle of the school day in a supposedly universal service? We don’t do this in hospitals. Patients need nutrition to get well, just as children need it to learn. And comprehensive extended school services before and after school and throughout the school holidays, with good food available, is an agenda that we urgently need to revive in order to eliminate the need for emergency child-hunger programmes. Enriching activities have also been shown to improve school attainment.
By 2021–22, we will be spending around £40 billion a year less on social security than in 2010. There could have been little doubt back then what the impact of cuts this size would mean for child poverty numbers. So we are reaping the results. Rising child poverty never needed to happen, and it must be brought to an end.
Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group