The Big Issue’s holiday hunger campaign has been hammering home the reality of summer food poverty for families. But we know the struggle doesn’t end when term starts up again. For families who find it difficult to keep their children fed without free school meals, and who often have to decide between entertaining them and keeping the electricity meter topped up, there are health implications reaching far beyond the beginning of term.
Dr Kelly Morgan, a public health researcher at Cardiff University, knows this well. She gathered evidence from 193 primary schools across Wales to find out how children’s experiences during the long summer holiday could explain the socioeconomic differences seen in their health when they go back to school.
We took our holiday hunger campaign to the people whose voices matter most: Families struggling to keep kids fed and entertained this summer. https://t.co/AB2r52dx1A
— The Big Issue (@BigIssue) August 18, 2019
There’s something many people don’t consider a health issue, she says, but is endemic among poorer children returning to school: loneliness.
“We surveyed more than 100,000 young people aged between 11 and 16,” Morgan tells The Big Issue. “Sure, one in six young people reported frequent experiences of loneliness during the summer, and that’s a concern. But there is a serious social gradient there. Some families are already trying to cover childcare costs, for example, and the extra gap in the food availability, and we know that activities can be expensive in the summer holidays.”
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The team’s research proved that poorer children were less likely to spend time with friends or engage in physical activities, which was directly linked to their mental health further down the line. Those same children were more than twice as likely than their wealthy peers to report feeling lonely often.
“Loneliness had the strongest link to wellbeing and mental health when they returned to school that we observed,” Morgan said. “If policies are looking to have more of an impact on children’s health in this context, loneliness is a massive factor we should be targeting.”
Recent research from the academics suggested that schools should be opened during the summer holidays and used to provide healthy food and worthwhile activity for kids. Holiday lunch clubs are, she said, “a short-term fix” and not the “structural change” that is needed.
If policies are looking to have more of an impact on children’s health in this context, loneliness is a massive factor we should be targeting
“Health in adolescence, mental health in particular, is unravelling,” Morgan added. “It’s at crisis point. All the while, the gap between rich and poor is one of the widest compared to other developed countries.
“Without a holistic, all-encompassing approach, hunger and loneliness will just grow and grow among children whose families are hit hardest during the holidays.”
Next year the researchers will launch a study of how poverty during the holidays impacts pupil attainment upon return to school.