As September draws closer, you, like me, are probably mourning “the holidays”. I am a freelancer and therefore “holiday” is a bit of an alien term, but I will miss the city, parks and cafes teeming with children hopped up on Fruit Shoots and their parents’ ever-weakening willpower. For me, summer is synonymous with watching kids interact with the world, seeing them live joyfully in the moment and then throw down a stupendous tantrum.
During the holidays, I called my best friend – a well-paid assistant head at a London school – for a chat. She told me that my godchildren ate so much over summer that she ran out of money after three weeks and had to start using her credit card to buy food. “They’re just hungry all the time,” she said, sounding exhausted. If it was happening to my decently paid friend, who was by no means low-income, how were other families managing? Those who were used to their children having free school dinners and were somehow having to find the extra money and time over the month-and-a-half break?
That the term “holiday hunger” should even exist is profoundly disturbing to me. Though I’m no stranger to food poverty through my Lowborn research, not being a parent myself I hadn’t absorbed just how precarious that gap between “scraping by” and “absolutely fucked” was and, when I did, I realised it measured exactly six weeks.
Just how long those weeks could be hadn’t occurred to me until I started writing Lowborn and found myself back in North Shields, walking from memory, without knowing the address, directly to where me and my family had lived, a place that used to be full of broken people with nowhere else to go. I realised I actually knew only too well.
We had moved to North Shields from Scotland and had ended up living in a single room at the top of a halfway hostel for the homeless. The room was tiny, barely big enough for the bunk beds, single bed and chest of drawers. We had a counter with a sink, a mini fridge and a hotplate. Electric ran on a meter at 50p a time. The showers also had a 20p meter and were communal – we tried to time it to use the tail end of someone else’s go until the water went cold, mum guarding the door to make sure none of the other residents came in.
That summer, I was eight, my sister was one. I cannot even imagine how hard it was for my mum to try and entertain us in that tiny space with not even a spare pound. I remember a lot of trips to the park, picnics of stale Scotch pancakes and jam pulled from plastic bags, washed down with HP Sauce and ketchup bottles cleaned out and filled with tepid milk or water. For every lunch, we ate sausages, bought frozen in huge bags from Iceland and fried up slowly on that tiny, ineffectual hotplate.
I don’t recall being unhappy that summer, but I do remember being hungry – wanting treats and learning not to ask for them, because the expression on mum’s face when she said no was worse than not getting an ice cream. They didn’t have a name for it then, holiday hunger. It was hidden, invisible – we were simply poor, and that was accepted as fact.
I remember being hungry, wanting treats and learning not to ask for them because the expression on mum’s face when she said no was worse than not getting an ice cream
My mum, a single parent on bootstrap benefits, often paying some of that meagre amount to top-up private rent or to repay benefits "crisis loans", no doubt struggled every summer holiday trying to feed, entertain and then kit us out for school in September. It’s a credit to her, as it is to all the parents out there who somehow manage to make something out of nothing, that of all the summers it’s the only one I can remember where I knew we didn’t have enough to keep us fed.
Once I started thinking about the term "holiday hunger", I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Because I knew. I knew it meant being optionless and selling anything at all you had of any value – all of my little radio/tape players were sold at some point for a few quid on a desperate day. It meant searching fruitlessly down the back of the sofa for coppers like hunting for treasure. It was making the decision between a loaf of bread or electric or a shower. Or going into emergency electricity and borrowing some money if you could, knowing in five days you’d be in exactly the same dire straits because it had to be paid back. It’s deciding to go without, so your kid could eat while they hungrily waited for the slow days to pass, while making a list of everything they’d eat once you could afford food again.
A 2017 survey by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) reported that 80% of surveyed teachers had seen an increase in holiday poverty. In my old town of Coatbridge, one of the most deprived in North Lanarkshire, the problem is so bad that this year, to their credit, they have introduced a scheme called Club 360 that gives free school meals to primary-age children from low-income homes all year around, in holidays and at weekends. It’s been so successful that they plan to double the scheme in size by March 2019, while other local authorities are also looking at adopting the model. I’m sure this will be welcome news to The Trussell Trust, which, this summer, had to make an appeal for more donations to its food banks, as July and August saw a rise in children using their services. Last summer alone, they gave out 74,000 three-day emergency food supplies that went to children.
Still, I take some comfort in the decency of people. When I visit my local supermarket in Toxteth, a disadvantaged area of Liverpool where around 2,100 children still live in poor households, there’s a line of food-donation bins, including one for school-uniform items, at the checkouts. Each of the bins overflow with food donations even in this area, where people generally have very little to spare. Perhaps it’s because when you have been hard-up, you know how brutal it can be. You understand that grinding, exhausting, dehumanising feeling that just repeats itself again and again. And, when you’re able, you hope to spare others even a moment of that burden.
That this should still be happening in 2018 is bewildering and infuriating and heartbreaking. It happened three decades ago to me and my sister and countless others, and to kids long before that. How can it still be happening now?