For children who rely on free school meals, the summer holidays can mean not so much fun adventure and harmless boredom but weeks of hunger. On Wednesday, it was reported that, boosted by £500,000 from the Welsh government, Wales is now running a scheme to provide children with free meals throughout the summer break.
It’s heartbreaking how necessary this is. The all-party parliamentary group on hunger this year found three million children risk going hungry during the school holidays.
Read through the latest report of the committee and it’s like hardship from a bygone era: children existing on holiday diets of crisps, hungry kids unable to take part in a football tournament because “their bodies simply gave up”, and others relying on unhealthy diets “bought to fill hungry stomachs”.
At the same time, figures from the Trussell Trust food bank network show a jump in the number of food parcels being provided to children over the summer months, with 67,506 three-day emergency food supplies handed out in July and August 2016, compared with 63,094 in the previous months – an increase of more than 4,000. This is about as upsetting as it can get: half of the children needing help from food banks last summer were in primary school and more than a quarter were under the age of five.
I often talk to teachers who are bringing in food for their pupils in the morning or parents who eat a piece of toast for dinner so their children can get a decent meal
This summer, a record number of food banks are calling for donations, with some even stating that – with demand so high – they’re running out of food. But a lack of free school meals in the holidays is only a snapshot of the issue: while one million children receive free school meals, twice as many kids in poverty are disqualified due to the fact their parents are in work. Nowadays, I often talk to teachers who are bringing in food for their pupils in the morning or parents who regularly eat a piece of toast for dinner so their children can get a decent meal.
Hungry children are hardly a new phenomenon but in an era of austerity it is one that’s growing. Many families are currently facing a lethal cocktail: as benefits are cut and wages shrink, food prices, childcare costs, and rents rise. That’s why it’s hugely welcome that this week more than a dozen Conservative MPs joined Labour in a bid to place a legal duty on local authorities to provide free meals and activities for children throughout the holidays. But it will take more than this to really tackle the problem – not only of child hunger but child poverty generally. The crisis of kids starving in the summer holidays doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s a product of the reality that four million children are living below the breadline. That’s about a third of all the children in this country. And this is only set to get worse. By 2020-21, the Institute for Fiscal Studies projects a 50 per cent increase in relative child poverty, as well as a rise in absolute poverty.
To begin to address this, we need big changes. Under the name of “welfare reform”, recent years has seen a range of policies that have radically pulled support from the poorest parents: from the benefit cap, limiting of child tax credits, the roll out of Universal Credit, to the freezing of child benefit. That’s not to mention policies like the bedroom tax, cuts to disability benefits, and housing changes that also affect children. Any politician with a genuine desire to ensure children aren’t going hungry has to look at rolling back the worst of this. Even areas that on first glance seem far removed from school meals – such as housing policy – are crucial too. Low income families in private housing have to pay huge chunks of their wages on rent; when it’s a choice between skipping meals and eviction, food bills are one of the few ways to save cash. Building more social housing, for example, would ultimately help reduce child hunger.
Still, it’s easy as individuals to feel helpless to all this – to wish we could do something personally. Of course, we can donate to our local food bank, particularly during holiday periods when the need is greater. Or write to our local MP to get them to support the backbench bill to provide free school meals in the holiday – or to ask them what they’re doing about child poverty generally. Keeping an eye out for our local children’s centre, library, or park closures and reductions in hours, and helping a campaign to stop it, is also an important way to help low-income families and our own communities.
Poverty has a lasting impact on children: on their exams results, their confidence, even how their bodies develop. As Wales is showing, something has to be done about it. The feeling of an empty stomach is becoming scarily normal for many of Britain’s children.