Children are having to go without presents and Christmas dinner this year in the cost of living crisis. Image: Pexels
Christmas is magical for children who wake up to stockings filled with presents and smells of a festive feast wafting from the kitchen. But the cost of living crisis means many won’t be getting a visit from Santa this year.
Denise, a single mother in London, cannot afford to buy gifts or Christmas dinner for her nine- and 11-year-old boys. Their little family of three didn’t celebrate in the pandemic, and 2022 will be the same again.
She is far from alone. Nearly seven in 10 people (67 per cent) are worried about being able to afford Christmas dinner, according to recent research by the Salvation Army. One in seven (14 per cent) cannot afford to give their children a Christmas present.
“I can’t even think about Christmas to be honest with you,” Denise says. “We’ll have it next year if the situation changes. I would love to get them a turkey or a special chicken.” She admits Christmas is the least of her worries – it is just another day in a long battle to keep her children fed.
Denise moved to London from Spain five years ago and works full-time as a translator on minimum wage. Her children are not eligible for free school meals because she is earning more than the threshold, and she relies on her local food bank to survive. They sleep in the one bed they have in their council flat.
Laurence Guinness, chief executive of the Childhood Trust, which is supporting Denise’s family, says: “The 11-year-old is fairly tall for his age, but he is so thin. You can see his ribs sticking out through his T-shirt. It is pitiful. These children are not getting enough to eat on a regular basis.
“Their mum is really struggling. She has no family. She has no support network. She’s got two growing boys, and they’re lacking energy. They’re lacking motivation. They’ve had problems at school. They’re finding it hard to concentrate on their work.”
Guinness explained hunger could have a significant impact on their health – they will be lacking in vitamins, nutrients and proteins which will weaken their immune systems and expose them to illness and disease. It will also have an impact on their mental health.
“They feel frustration,” Denise says. “Sometimes they’re ashamed. Some of the boys go to buy food together after school and I can’t give him money to go. I think it’s quite hard for them. The money that I’m earning is not enough, so I need to go to a food bank.”
Denise makes sacrifices to feed her boys, but now it is taking its toll on her health. “I eat less to give them more,” she explains. “I’m not very well. I have Crohn’s disease, so I can’t eat any type of food. If I have a problem, I just can’t eat. It’s not good for me.”
The Childhood Trust has found 40 per cent of children aged six to 16 are facing food poverty in London, meaning their families cannot afford to keep them fed. On a national scale, one in four families experienced food insecurity in September, according to the Food Foundation. That is affecting four million children.
Guinness said: “We’ve never seen levels of food insecurity at that high before. It’s an alarm bell, in the face of growing adversity and the diminishing power of household income. It’s really hard now for families on low and even middle incomes to make ends meet. And if a net consequence of that is as the children are having to miss meals, that’s really serious. That’s actually a public health crisis.”
Denise reached out to her council, but was told there was nothing it could do. “Her children are starving and nobody can help,” Guinness said. “That’s where we’ve ended up. She can’t access government ministers, she can’t access policy makers. Her story is representative of millions of low income households, many of whom are in the same situation and can’t access any support whatsoever.”
The charity is warning that government support does not go far enough as thousands of children are at risk of malnutrition this winter. Increasing benefits in line with inflation will still leave their real value 6 per cent below pre-pandemic levels, so the charity is urging the government to go further to help vulnerable people.
It is calling for an expansion of the free school meals scheme, scrapping the two-child limit on benefits and extending the Holiday Food and Activities Programme to more children. And it is asking for people, if they can, to donate to their Christmas Appeal to help support children living in poverty this winter.
“There’s never a bold vision,” Guinness said. “I’ve never heard one government minister say we’re going to eradicate poverty in this country overnight. How great would it be to hear someone with a vision like that? A bold statement that could say nobody in this country, and especially not children, are ever going to go hungry.”
The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future.