Social Justice

Food banks see ‘immediate jump in demand' as school holidays start

Schools closing for the summer means low-income families reliant on free school meals are forced to turn to food banks. The pandemic is sending demand even higher

When schools wind down for the summer holidays, the worries for low-income families only ramp up. And this year, after 17 months of furlough payments and redundancies, the evidence is clear in queues outside food banks.

Demand for free school meals soared in lockdown. Government figures showed nearly 302,400 more kids qualified for free food between March 2020 and 2021, taking the total to 1.7 million children receiving meals at school when they can’t get one at home. It means the end of term puts pressure on the already stretched family budgets for nearly 20 per cent of England’s state school pupils. Struggling to put food on the table, parents and carers are forced to turn to food banks.

“It was an immediate jump in demand the week after schools closed,” said Paul O’Brien, executive director of Micah Liverpool, a social justice charity offering food aid to the local community.

Micah handed out 277 food parcels in the week up to July 23, when most of England’s state schools closed. A week later — “once people’s store cupboards were bare,” O’Brien said — they gave away 364 parcels, an increase of more than 31 per cent. 

Now into August, the food bank is seeing consistent demand for more than 300 emergency food parcels each week, well above what the team would normally expect even during the summer holidays. The financial pressures on families mean the increased demand has become “the norm”, O’Brien told The Big Issue.

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Children are eligible for free school meals if their household’s income is below £7,400 or if they receive certain state benefits. Campaigners have warned free school meals eligibility was already too strict, and Child Poverty Action Group research showed two in five children living in poverty prior to the pandemic were not eligible for the free lunches.

It means thousands of children lose a guaranteed meal five days a week as families in poverty reckon with the sudden increase in their weekly food spend. 

The government funded food parcels and supermarket vouchers for eligible families last summer, but this year chose to give £220m exclusively to holiday and activity clubs, despite calls from Labour to “trust parents” and give them cash payments. The ring-fenced funding is enough to cover four hours a day, four hours a week, for four weeks of the summer holiday for each child already on free school meals.

Before the pandemic, around 80 per cent of people seeking help from the Micah food bank were refugees or asylum seekers, O’Brien said. But as Covid-19 has continued to hit jobs and household finances, the number of locals in need of food as a result of struggling with debt and slashed incomes has roughly doubled.

Now, the proportion of families turning out for food aid since schools closed has increased enough that food bank volunteers have started setting aside space for buggies and prams to be parked. Planned work on the premises, such as changes to the storeroom, have been pushed back to September so the food bank can “get through the summer” before preparing for the Christmas push, when schools close again.

“A lot of the time it’s single men who use the food bank,” O’Brien said. “But during the summertime we’re seeing a lot more families — it’s consistent enough that we adjust what we put in our food parcels day to day — sometimes families of up to seven or eight people who have basically no income. It sends our numbers clear.

“We have to get through these six weeks and then see where we are. It’s going to be hectic.” 

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The Micah team is hoping for a drop in demand when schools return, driven partly by support services such as Citizens Advice bureaus and jobcentres returning to face-to-face appointments, but is not expecting numbers to decrease to the pre-pandemic norm of around 220 parcels per week.

“I’m more hopeful that our peers and our partners will take the pressure off food banks, more so than anything the government will do,” O’Brien said.

The executive director pointed to the £20-per-week universal credit cut, expected at the end of September, and the no recourse to public funds policy locking asylum seekers out of state support as factors likely to keep piling pressure on food aid services while impacting the mental wellbeing of families in need of emergency food parcels.

“We know that the people who felt the pinch during the pandemic are the people who were already on the lowest incomes,” O’Brien said. “I don’t think that’s necessarily been recognised by the higher ups in the government.

“I personally think it has been recognised locally, though. The local response in Liverpool has been really good, especially from our MPs.” Ian Byrne, MP for Liverpool West Derby, has been driving the Right to Food campaign to place a legal duty on central government to ensure no one in the UK goes hungry.

But emergency food parcels won’t necessarily stop the health of people in poverty from suffering, O’Brien warned.

“We try our best to make the food parcels nutritious as possible, lots of fresh fruit and veg and things like that. But if you’ve got young families, you’ve got children, or you’re a pregnant mother, a food parcel isn’t going to be as nutritious as if you could afford the food that meets your specific needs.

“So if anyones goes, ‘as long as they get a food parcel, they’re okay’, well – they’re better than they were, but it doesn’t fix the problem.  

“If you’ve got a toddler, and you’re having to use food banks for a few months to a year, so 50 per cent of that child’s life, they might not be getting the nutrition that they necessarily need. So it’s not it’s not a good thing and it’s not a positive.”

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