Local businesses ‘overwhelmed’ by demand for half-term meals

More than 1,200 businesses have offered meals for children forced to go without during the half-term school holidays. They told The Big Issue the number of families in need has been "sobering"

Businesses across the country are mobilising to make sure hungry children get half-term meals after the Government voted down proposals to extend the free school meals programme through the holiday.

More than 1,200 organisations have pledged to support their communities in a time of need, and – as some told The Big Issue – they have been overwhelmed by the demand.

“It’s extremely concerning. I had no idea of the scale of the problem until this,” said Rich Craig, co-founder of London’s Big Smoke Brew Company. Through its network of six pubs, the business vowed to provide 1,000 meals for kids in need over the half term week.

By Tuesday Craig said his organisation had almost hit capacity, but he told The Big Issue they will continue to meet demand until schools go back.

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England footballer Marcus Rashford had campaigned to have the government’s free school meal programme extended over the holidays to help children who need it but MPs rejected the proposal. 

Hundreds of businesses promised to fill the gap in the days following the vote and volunteers have collected offers from pubs, cafes, restaurants and councils on an interactive free school meals map.

Food Foundation, which is part of Rashford’s Child Food Poverty Taskforce, found that 14 per cent of adults living with children reported experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity in the between March and September 2020.

“Four million people including 2.3 million children live in these households,” the organisation said in a research report.

At Big Smoke, people in need can collect the pre-packaged half-term meals prepared by the pub’s chefs and some deliveries have been made to people who can’t travel to pick up the food.

“The response has been pretty overwhelming to be honest,” Craig said. “I spent most of the weekend personally replying to people’s emails with requests for meals.

“I’ve got two young children myself and just hearing stories about the situations people are finding themselves in at the moment, due to the pandemic and redundancies, is really sobering.”

The pair have been inundated with offers of support from the public, too. One anonymous contributor donated £1,000 in cash for the cause over the bar in Wokingham. 

big smoke half term meals
A Big Smoke chef prepares meals for children during half term

“There’s a lot of stigma around it,” Craig added. “It’s one of the main issues we face, because we’re asking people to come into the pub. So we’ve been very careful with our staff to make sure we treat people discreetly, talk to them with kindness and make the experience as stress-free as possible for them.

“At the end of the day, the need is there. Someone’s got to do something about it.”

In Thame, Oxfordshire, the family-run Cottage Bakery is also doing its bit by giving away loaves of freshly baked bread to families in need.

The stigma faced by people struggling to afford food has become clear to Tizzy, who works in the shop owned by her parents, so much so that they have pledged to keep details of demand under wraps to protect the privacy of those less well-off in their tight-knit community.

“A lot of our customers all know each other and it’s extremely important we protect people’s confidentiality, so locals feel comfortable letting us know if they need something. But we have definitely had requests,” she told The Big Issue.

“There are a lot of people worried about the shame of it. There shouldn’t be any, but I can understand why people feel that way, especially those who are struggling for the first time.”

For businesses like the Cottage Bakery, there was no question that they would give half-term meals to hungry kids in need.

“We’re not into politics or anything like that, but children are so important to your community,” Tizzy said. “If you are in a position to help, then why not?”

“I heard a couple of days ago that going in to the debate the feeling was that the British public wouldn’t care about the issue of child hunger a second time around,” tweeted Marcus Rashford, who was awarded an MBE for campaigning to have the government extend free school meals into the summer holidays. “Boy did you prove that theory wrong.”

Images: Big Smoke Brew Co