Last week the government announced £2.1bn extra cash for no-deal Brexit crisis planning. But in South Shields, the future of local breakfast clubs is under threat after losing out on £30,000 of Westminster funding. Emma Lewell-Buck, Labour MP for the area, is determined to stop children going hungry this summer – but the government isn’t making it easy.
“I get people coming into my office all the time absolutely desperate,” says Lewell-Buck, 40. “The safety net that my parents relied on when we needed it has been completely eroded.”
She has represented her constituency in Parliament since 2013. A former social worker, she specialised in child protection and more recently co-founded holiday hunger charity Feeding Britain with fellow MP Frank Field. It has built a national network of community groups, providing support and resources to them to make a difference to families struggling to feed themselves and their children during the summer holidays.
When she first entered Parliament, Lewell-Buck joined the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Hunger, subsequently touring the UK to meet people who testified to the scale of the crisis. The MP was left heartbroken.
“After the 2015 election, we realised austerity was going to continue to be pushed through, cruel welfare reform would still be the order of the day. So setting up Feeding Britain seemed like something of value to do in the here and now. We imagined it as the ‘doing’ arm of the APPG.”
A fraction of the generous foodbank donations dropped at my office this week to be delivered to Key 2 Life. Thank you to the fabulous local people who have been so kind – you are making a real difference. I promise to keep fighting for the day we don’t need to do this any more. pic.twitter.com/xUhWccDnst
— Emma Lewell-Buck MP (@EmmaLewellBuck) August 1, 2019
While Feeding Britain has branches all over the UK, the MP is particularly involved with the holiday clubs in South Shields.
“There’s a lot of people who feel absolute shame about having to ask for help or go to foodbanks,” Lewell-Buck explains. “We still don’t know the true extent of the food poverty problem because of that.”
In one group the MP is involved with, children meet in a local allotment to learn about plants and wildlife then get meals hot off the barbecue.
“We keep them activity-focused and are keen to avoid approaching it like, ‘You’re hungry, you come here’.”
Earlier this year Nadhim Zahawi, children’s minister at the time, announced £9.1m in funding for organisations providing free meals and activities for kids during the holidays, four times the funding offered a year earlier and benefiting an estimated 50,000 children. Across England, 11 groups were selected to receive grants.
But Lewell-Buck isn’t convinced. “It has all been a PR exercise to make it look like they care when quite frankly they don’t. If they did, they’d tackle the root causes of it all – 11 groups had successful bids, but 92 applied. The government isn’t doing anything to support the other 81.”
In 2017, Lewell-Buck introduced a Private Member’s Bill – backed by 38 organisations and nearly 160 MPs – that demanded the government measures UK food insecurity and comes up with provisions that eliminate the problem. Earlier this year, after a two-year campaign, the government finally agreed to monitor British hunger. But no results will be published before April 2021.
“We’re talking about it more now but it’s been a crisis for a long time,” says Lewell-Buck. “Ultimately the level of destitution in this country is a direct result of austerity, including cruel and punitive welfare reform. And quite frankly – if you look at it closely – the rollout of Universal Credit was never intended to do anything other than put hardship on to those who could least afford it.”
The spread of low-paid and insecure work combined with rising living costs and stagnating wages is also to blame for the holiday hunger crisis, Lewell-Buck believes. The government has allowed the gig economy to flourish, Lewell-Buck argues, and the extreme poverty so many are plunged into when term-time ends is one symptom of that.
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“But the thing is, people are big-hearted and people do care. In South Shields, people aren’t particularly wealthy, it’s not a well-off place, they’re hard-working, decent people. I put an appeal out for one of our foodbanks that had shelves totally emptied. And you couldn’t move in my office from all the donations within 24 hours.
“My faith in humanity is definitely there, just not in the government. By and large I know the UK is full of decent people who will help out. I think they’re our greatest hope now.”