It was nearly a year ago that The Trussell Trust saw a 20 per cent rise in demand for emergency food parcels, with nearly 90,000 handed out to struggling families during the holidays. Big Issue Changemaker Professor Greta Defeyter, who heads up Northumbria University’s Healthy Living Lab, told us the government was providing enough funding to help just 50,000 kids access food while schools were closed – not the 1.3 million who rely on free school meals and are at risk of going hungry.
Meanwhile Cardiff University’s Dr Kelly Morgan warned that holiday hunger left children feeling isolated and mental health at “crisis point”.
This was before the pandemic.
Professor Defeyter told The Big Issue that while funding to replace school meals in the holidays is a positive step, her recent research shows that even when families receive free school meal vouchers they struggle to afford healthy food.
In fact, her lockdown study into how children in disadvantaged households were eating found that 45 per cent had not eaten any fruit across a three-day period; 55 per cent hadn’t eaten any vegetables; and 35 per cent had skipped at least one meal.
She said the government needs to create a cross-department food programme to replace the “fragmented” holiday breakfast and activities programmes run previously.
In early June more than 100 organisations including the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) called for the UK government to introduce a temporary Coronavirus Emergency Income Support Scheme, pointing to mounting concern for children’s wellbeing.
They said it would ensure everyone had enough money in their pockets for essentials during the crisis – but that it would take a rise in child benefit and fundamental policy change to ensure children weren’t going hungry.
Tackling the five-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment and ending the two-child limit was crucial, they said. The campaigners pointed out that the benefit cap would have to be lifted to ensure the support benefitted everyone.
This, too, would go some way to protecting another two million children from hunger, as estimated by charity Feeding Britain. These are the kids with parents on low incomes and who don’t qualify for free school meals, their families making up the record number forced to turn to foodbanks in the first month of lockdown (IFAN saw a 175 per cent increase in demand for emergency food parcels from their venues).
The importance of ensuring that children have quality food, play, activities, learning and fun over the summer is more important than ever. A community asset based approach would enable extended provision without putting additional pressure on teachers @NEUnion @LindsayGrahamUK https://t.co/1ap0TO0ckp
— Professor Greta Defeyter (@livinghealthy) July 1, 2020
IFAN coordinator Sabine Goodwin also welcomed the government U-turn, but said the new plans “represent sticking plasters on a gaping wound”.
“Britain’s food insecurity crisis long predates Covid-19,” she said. “The long-term solution lies in addressing escalating poverty, not in a series of stop-gap measures.
“Everyone needs to be in a position to be able to afford to buy food.”
Meanwhile thousands of UK children are at risk of foregoing meals because of their parents’ immigration status. The Local Government Association said, on behalf of councils, that ministers must suspend the no recourse to public funds policy – which stops people accessing the welfare system if they have limited leave to remain in the UK – to prevent thousands of families from going hungry during the crisis and beyond.
Economists have warned that the full financial impact of lockdown won’t be felt until October, with campaigners set to push the government on its plans to prevent hunger over half-term and Christmas too, when extra childcare costs and fuel bills mount up. And the threat of a no-deal Brexit looms at the end of this year, which Andrew Selley – chief executive of school meal provider Bidfood – said could see a return to “a menu based on the 1700s” if imports take a hit.
For it to be meaningful we now need to see policy change
And there is pressure on the government to ensure its summer plans will be fully functional after a Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigation found that the free schools meals voucher replacement system had been “deeply flawed” since lockdown began. It found many families had been left without access to the online system, while others were unable to use the vouchers in their local supermarkets.
HRW Western Europe researcher Kartik Raj told The Big Issue the government’s summer announcement was “undeniably good news”, if a “one-off gesture”.
He added: “For it to be meaningful we now need to see legislative and policy steps to guarantee that no child goes hungry, whether it’s in term-time or during future school holidays.”