Terri White: No child should know the emptiness and ache of hunger

The effects of childhood poverty have not left celebrated journalist Terri White. We must work to help the next generation avoid it and succeed, she says

The story, when I finally heard it, was shared – fittingly – over lunch at Jamie Oliver’s non-profit restaurant Fifteen in London. My auntie, unaware that I didn’t remember it, began to speak about the time when I was a young child and social services were called in. I froze. You were seen eating out of a bin, she continued. The one behind the chip shop in the village.

My face prickled and flushed, my guts dove. I felt a new, immediate wave of shame for a memory I couldn’t find, but an image I now couldn’t shake.

It would have been the school holidays, I quickly deduced – the long days when me and my brother would be sent out on to the streets of the estate in the morning and told to come home when the street lights came on. I might not remember crouching in the bin, amidst the debris and stench, but I knew that no child climbs into a bin and grabs fistfuls of discarded food unless they’re starving. It’s about as desperate as it gets. I felt ashamed. I still feel ashamed.

Growing up in a single-parent household that crackled with violence from the men who came through it, and where money was always in short supply, the school holidays were the worst of times.

In term time we’d have free school meals and clothes paid for with free uniform vouchers. Food in our bellies, clothes on our backs, shoes on our feet. Bags to put our schoolbooks in. The basic things that offer safety and security and a sense of normality for the kids who crave it.

I know something of their pain. Of their humiliation and shame

Thirty-odd years on, poverty is one of this country’s most crippling problems. The statistics are sobering: in 2018-2019 there were 4.2 million children living in poverty in the UK. That’s 30 per cent of children. Thirty per cent. Or, as the Child Poverty Action Group puts it: nine kids in a class of 30. The numbers are even more stark for children from black and minority ethnic groups – with 45 per cent in poverty.

While these figures are hard to comprehend, I know something of their pain. Of their humiliation and shame. Yet, the shame clearly belongs elsewhere, to others. To a government and a Prime Minister who decided that during the summer holidays they would not continue providing free school meal vouchers to the 1.3 million children eligible for them. Even though the “unprecedented times” they so often speak of have seen a bad situation get somehow worse. Since lockdown began, the charity Food Foundation estimates that 200,000 children have had to skip meals.

One man decided that he wouldn’t, couldn’t, let it stand. A 22-year-old footballer, Marcus Rashford, who 10 years ago was part of that 45 per cent. “My mum worked full-time, earning minimum wage to make sure we always had a good evening meal on the table. But it was not enough,” he wrote in an open letter to MPs. “The system was not built for families like mine to succeed.”

He laid bare his own experience, explaining that his family relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals, foodbanks and soup kitchens. He invited his followers on social media to share the letter and tag in their MPs. It was a plea not just for financial support, but for empathy and humanity. Decency, even. To simply, for a moment, imagine not being able to feed your child, or to be one of those children suffering the emptiness and ache of hunger. Things that no child should be familiar with the touch of.

When Boris Johnson conceded and announced the £120m Covid summer voucher scheme – which works out at £15 per child per week – his official spokesman praised Rashford’s “contribution to the debate around poverty”. The debate.

There is no debate to be had on poverty and more specifically, there is no debate to be had on the government of a functioning society feeding kids who could otherwise starve. There is no position other than: of course. Yes. We will not let over a million of our children go hungry. Never. That’s not who we are.

Now, because of Marcus Rashford, thousands upon thousands of kids won’t remember this summer as the six weeks they worried about where their next meal was coming from; whether it would come at all.

“Without the kindness and generosity of the community I had around me, there wouldn’t be the Marcus Rashford you see today,” he wrote. For beyond the immediate financial and physical need, it’s about what comes next. Who they become. And the children of this country deserve to shape their selves without the stain of the indignities that so often come with living in poverty. Of going without, going hungry.

They too deserve a future free from shame, from their own stories that provoke the prickle, and the flush. A future where they’re free, simply, to succeed.

Terri White is editor-in-chief of Empire. Her memoir Coming Undone is out on July 2 (Canongate, £14.99). Her fee for this piece is being donated to the Trussell Trust.