Big Issue Vendor

‘You think you must be a bad parent’: One family’s holiday hunger plight

Behind the facts and figures, real families have been plunged into food poverty without free school meals during the holidays. Here is one mother's story

Kate* is a mother of three from Edinburgh. She and her husband Daniel*, both 30, “have [their] tiptoes on the breadline” despite Daniel working as a local councillor and Kate receiving child benefit. Their children – one in high school and two in primary school, the youngest of whom has special needs – visit the school breakfast clubs and are entitled to free meals during term time. But, facing six weeks of holiday hunger every summer, they feel let down by the state.

“People don’t realise how much it costs to feed a family,” Kate says. “In a normal week we would buy branded bread, things like that. But during the summer holidays you have to get the cheapest of the cheap – cheapest bread, cheapest peanut butter, cheapest jam. Things that will cost little and go far to make sure there’s at least something to feed your children with.

“They suffer nutritionally, no doubt about it, and it breaks my heart.

“You can’t feed your kids a balanced diet, you can’t take them anywhere fun in the holidays. All your energy goes into stretching your budget from hour to hour for seven weeks. You can’t help but think you must be a bad parent. It really affects your mental health, and theirs. It’s the worst guilt you can get.”

The family is forced to spend around £100 extra on food per week during the holidays to compensate for the breakfasts, lunches and snacks the children receive at school. As well as the guilt of struggling to feed your own children, Kate says, it’s compounded when her kids come home with friends – she can only afford to give snacks to her own.

“There’s no thinking, ‘We’ve got something shoved to the back of the freezer, it’ll be fine’. You’ve got what you’re going to eat that day and that is it.”

Suggestions to buy in bulk are unhelpful at best and insulting at worst, Kate says. Daniel’s wage for the month runs down quickly and they find themselves living week-to-week on her child benefits. After rent, gas and electricity, £200 doesn’t go far and certainly doesn’t leave the family enough to invest in large quantities of food.

They have never had to use a foodbank, though it has been “bloody close”. But if there hadn’t been family to help they would have gone down that route. Kate says: “It’s ridiculous that we could end up queueing at a foodbank when one of us is working.”

You wouldn’t think a family like ours would be in trouble

Keeping the children occupied during the holidays comes at a cost, too. Kate and Daniel can spend another £100 on activities in a week, despite not being able to stretch to the extra-curriculars that fill the summers of their children’s well-off peers. They can afford one activity a week and finding something both affordable and enriching for three children in different age groups is a challenge. “It’s a weekly decision: are we going to eat this week or are we going to be able to take the kids out to do something?”

The children are stuck at home for seven weeks, and can act out – “they don’t know how to explain to us that they have cabin fever, but we already know” – making life even more difficult for the family.

Kate and Daniel have to find pragmatic ways of cutting back on essentials even more during the holidays. “The shampoo we buy is the cheapest of the cheap from the cheapest shop so we can get by,” Kate says. “I even have to spend a lot of time being careful about what sanitary towels I buy – even though the most expensive is about £3. Anything more than a pound is out of out my budget. It can be the difference between affording lunch for the kids that day and not.”

The family has not been switched over to Universal Credit yet but the parents are “absolutely terrified” of it happening. “Most weeks we ride the emergency electricity right down to the last penny, then it’s lights off until we get paid at 12pm the next day. The prospect of having to go weeks before we get another payment is unthinkable.”

Kate, Daniel and their kids are just one of millions of families for whom the school holidays are a time of stress and struggle. They want the government to put forward a financial package for high-risk families to help keep their children fed and stimulated.

“You wouldn’t think a family like ours would be in trouble,” says Kate. “But this is the reality of the system now. The government is leaving people like us to scrape and scrimp. They want us to see living as a luxury.”

*Names have been changed