Free meals U-turn will still leave many children to go hungry

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UK schools warmly welcome free meals change of heart but many children of parents in low-paid jobs won’t be eligible

“It’s great news, to be fair,” said Chris Dyson, headteacher of Parklands primary school in Leeds, welcoming the government U-turn on free school meals (FSM). It’s an issue close to his heart – out of 360 pupils, 213 depend on FSM and holiday hunger is nothing new to his community.

What was new, however, was that earlier in the day he found himself on BBC Radio 4 discussing FSM with none other than Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford whose intervention prompted the government’s change of heart.

The government U-turn that followed has been warmly and widely welcomed across the sector. As a direct result, the families of about 1.3 million children in England will be entitled to a voucher worth £15 per week per child throughout the summer holiday, which will help alleviate the pressure on household budgets.

The reality is, however, that the FSM scheme only covers a minority of children in poverty. Many whose parents are working in low paid, insecure jobs are not eligible and will continue to go hungry over the holidays. Campaigners say many families are already turning to food banks and with the additional pressure of Covid, the food crisis is only going to get worse.

Holiday hunger may have hit the headlines in the middle of a modern pandemic, but the problem has been around for as long as school meals – creating the problem of how to feed the poorest children when schools were closed.

Back in 1909, two years after schools were able to start feeding pupils, school authorities in West Ham in London’s East End fed eligible children throughout the Christmas holidays. It was morally right to do so, they argued, even though it was unclear whether they had a legal obligation to do so.

The weather was so severe and the distress so acute … that we felt bound on the last day of the ordinary school to announce that the feeding centres would remain open to supply those children who were already in receipt of meals under the Act,” TW Watts, the chair of the education committee, told the London Daily News.

The issue arose again following the introduction of the Education Act in 1944. This made school meals a requirement – but was hazy on what should be done for children during the holidays. According to End Hunger UK, some authorities provided holiday meals in the 1960s and 1970s – but most did not.

Holiday hunger periodically surfaced as an issue in parliament – if not a cause celebre championed by famous footballers. In 1967 the Conservative MP Dame Joan Vickers argued that holiday hunger affects the children of the lower paid worker in particular” and that those on free school meals “should also receive them during the school holidays”.

More recently, austerity – in particular rising living costs and shrinking real incomes levels for the worst off – has brought holiday hunger to the fore again, with food banks able to plot rising demand from the poorest families over each holiday period, and voluntary initiatives springing up to launch holiday meal schemes.

About 3 million children potentially go hungry during the holiday, according to the charity Feeding Britain – one million of them on free school meals and a further 2 million who do not qualify for free meals but whose parents cannot afford to always buy meals, the children who have been labelled “food insecure”.

Helen Barnard, acting director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “Extending the voucher scheme into the summer will help ensure that we don’t see the hardship children are facing get worse in the summer holidays, but it only covers a minority of children in poverty and the pressures are much wider than just school meals.

“We are already hearing of soaring numbers of families being pulled under and having to rely on food banks to get through the current crisis, even with the voucher scheme in place.”

Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation, added: “It shows that the government is listening to the needs of vulnerable children. Of course this is really just the beginning. We think children’s food needs to become much more of a national priority.”

Access to food during lockdown has been a particular problem for some families. Data collected by the Food Foundation on food insecurity levels during the pandemic has shown that among households with children, the prevalence of food insecurity increased from 5.7% to 11%. A month into lockdown, the parents of 2 million children said they had experienced one or more forms of food insecurity and more than 200,000 children missed meals because of insufficient food.

After seven weeks of lockdown, 30% of adults with children eligible for FSM reported food insecurity, compared with 9% of adults with non-FSM children. While summer holidays have always had a negative impact on the educational levels of low income children, the fear is the additional effect of school closures will put vulnerable children at even greater disadvantage.

New research has already shown there has been a nutritional impact on low-income children. A small-scale study from Northumbria University showed that children eligible for FSMs are consuming less fruit and vegetables and more sugary drinks during the lockdown than before.

Extending FSM over the summer holidays will be a huge relief for many families, but others will continue to go without and campaigners would like to see a children’s right to food commission to help tackle systemic childhood food insecurity for the long-term.

In the meantime headteacher Chris Dyson will carry on putting together food hampers for his vulnerable families and the wider community, distributing 1,000 tins of baked beans, 2,000 bagels and 1,000 boxes of porridge to try to stem holiday hunger, but he too is hoping for lasting change .

“Holiday hunger has been around for the last few years, but it’s getting worse and worse every year as the gap between rich and poor gets wider. I know this is a one-off, but I think this could be the start of something special.”

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