As we near the end of the school holidays, I have been thinking a lot this summer about holiday hunger – an estimated three million children in the United Kingdom are at risk of going hungry during the school holidays.
Three million. In 2019. In the UK. This is utterly shocking and a moral outrage in the world’s fifth biggest economy.
Children who are eligible for free school meals (FSMs) lose this provision in the holidays. Families already struggling to make ends meet have to shoulder the burden of additional childcare costs, as well as providing an additional meal on a weekday. For those living on the breadline already, this can easily tip them over the edge. According to the Trussell Trust, demand for food banks in the summer holidays last year soared by 20%.
Clearly, we need to tackle the underlying issues in relation to the benefits system and low pay as to why more than four million children in this country are living in poverty. However, these longer-term policy solutions will not alleviate the hunger children across our country are experiencing now. Provision needs to be made as a matter of course during school holidays for those children entitled to FSMs. A number of fantastic charities, churches, foodbanks and community initiatives are trying to fill this gap but provision is very patchy.
Two years ago, Frank Field MP sought to introduce legislation to require local authorities to make provision of free meals and activities during the school holidays to children in areas of high deprivation. The bill was withdrawn on the basis that government committed to undertaking two years of pilot projects in the holidays – some £2m was committed in 2018 to these pilots and £9.1m in 2019 for eleven projects across the country.
It’s time now for the Department of Education to urgently analyse the impact of these projects and, I hope, systematically roll out a funded programme across the country to tackle holiday hunger via local authorities. Whilst it makes sense to target the areas of highest deprivation, we must not forget that there are children living in poverty in what are considered affluent areas, like my own borough of Richmond-upon-Thames (we have four wards where 25-30% of children are living in poverty, after housing costs). Arguably, children living in poverty in more affluent areas are more likely to be overlooked, given they are not in a concentrated area of poverty, so these sorts of interventions are less likely to be targeted at them.
As a society, we have a moral responsibility to ensure no child goes to bed hungry at night. Government and local authorities must urgently provide part of the solution.
Photo is by Pedro Reyna from Flickr CCL