Schools across the country are running food banks. This is at St George’s Primary School in Lincolnshire. Image: Supplied
Teachers have always gone above and beyond to support the children in their care and, with the cost of living crisis, schools are at the forefront of the UK’s slide into deepening poverty.
Only one week back in classrooms after the summer break, hundreds of schools across the country are running food banks so children have enough to eat. Teachers are giving up personal time, food from their own cupboards, and money out of the school’s budget to feed the poorest families.
As many as one in five UK schools reportedly set up food banks when they were forced to close during the pandemic, according to research from Kellogg’s. And demand hasn’t ceased.
“Schools are on the frontline of the cost of living crisis,” said Dr Will Baker, a researcher at the University of Bristol. “The spread of school-based food banks reflects a growing level of poverty, destitution and food insecurity.”
Teachers told the Big Issue schools are acting as the country’s “fourth emergency service”, while experts have warned it reveals the “bleak reality” of poverty rates in the UK.
Katie Barry, the headteacher at St George’s Primary School in Lincolnshire, said: “I lost that fight a long time ago. We just embrace it now. I can’t separate the social side from teaching and learning. Children will never be able to concentrate if they’re hungry, or if they’re cold, or if their toes are sticking out the bottoms of their trainers.”
The latest figures show that nearly 10 million people are living in food insecurity across the UK, including 2.6 million children. A further 1.3 million people face poverty this winter, according to forecasts from the Legatum Institute.
Barry and other staff set up a “food stall” to help families at the beginning of the pandemic. St George’s has one of the highest deprivation rates in the country, with around 75 to 80 per cent of its children eligible for the government’s pupil premium funding for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Barry chooses not to use the words “food bank”, explaining: “I’ve always thought that label was a barrier. For a huge amount of families who come, it probably hasn’t even dawned on them that they’re using a food bank. They just think the school puts on a food stall every fortnight.”
Every Friday, a transit van containing 1000kg of food parcels and toiletries arrives at the school gates. On the first week back after the school holidays, all the food was gone in 45 minutes. Barry fears that demand will soar amid the cost of living crisis, and they won’t be able to support the families who need their help.
The school was running the food bank every other week, but they have had to increase it to weekly because demand is so great. “The trouble is, it costs us,” Barry said. The charity FareShare supplies the school with food packages, at a cost of £320 a time. When St George’s started the food stall at the beginning of the pandemic, they ran it every week. Now, they can only hold it every fortnight.
FareShare takes good-to-eat, surplus food from across the food industry, and delivers it to a network of charities. They currently supply around 674 schools and 274 after-school clubs with meals. Between April and August this year, FareShare supplied 910 tonnes of food to schools across the country.
The school gets charitable grants to cut the costs and Barry is insistent she won’t use the school budget for it. “But even having it every fortnight, it all adds up,” she said, before making the decision to run the food bank every week. “If we went back to doing it weekly, it’s doubling that cost and it also takes staff time. It would be taking that time away from teaching and learning.”
It’s not just families who are struggling – teachers are also facing their own struggles in the cost of living crisis. Barry said she had staff who had to switch off their heating in February this year because they couldn’t afford it.
Baker, of the University of Bristol, is conducting extensive research into the rise of food banks in schools amid the cost of living crisis. Although it’s difficult to estimate exact numbers, he believes hundreds of schools across the country are running “some kind of food bank or pantry”.
“Schools will continue to play a central role in supporting families over what will be a very difficult winter,” he said. “But it’s deeply concerning to think that charitable food giving, and food banks, are becoming an increasingly common and normal part of what schools do.”
Barry said that, while they could not cope without the packages from FareShare, she has noticed that the quality of food has decreased in recent months.
A spokesperson for FareShare explained: “Currently, there are many challenges facing the food industry, with the war in Ukraine disrupting global food production, as well as the rising cost of fuel impacting the global food supply chain. This has led to volatility in the availability of surplus food in the last few months.
“This means that we have not been able to provide as much variety of surplus food to the charities we work with. This is happening at a time when increases in the cost of living are having a disproportionate impact on those already struggling to make ends meet, and demand for FareShare food has never been higher.”
While some schools are relying on charities like FareShare for food, others are purely relying on the efforts and goodwill of teachers and their school communities. Jen Cusack, the vice principal of Bristol Brunel Academy, organises a collection of food from teachers and then personally drives the packages to families’ homes.
At the moment, there are 16 families they support every week, and around 10 additional families who ask for specific items on occasions. “With the electricity prices rising and the cost of everything increasing,” Cusack said, “I can see demand growing particularly in the next couple of months. I’ve already had two more requests come in and we’ve only been back two days.”
She added: “I think it’s amazing that other schools are getting on board and feeling the need to provide their families with support. Ten or 15 years ago, I don’t think anyone would have thought of that at all.
“More and more, schools are finding themselves in situations where poverty is increasing in their communities now. We want our kids to be cared for. I think that more than ever people feel the same way. It’s time-consuming, but it’s really rewarding work. We find ourselves in a very interesting situation within the whole education sphere at the moment.”
This sense of pride was reflected in all the teachers who spoke to The Big Issue. Rachael Flaherty, the headteacher of Mayplace Primary School in Bexleyheath, in south-east London, spoke glowingly of the kindness of their community.
“We knew that the first Christmas was going to be difficult and asked for donations of food and toiletries as well as Christmas gifts,” Flaherty said. “We also asked for donations of new books to ensure that all children who were entitled to free school meals had the gift of a book to open on Christmas Day.”
That demand is only rising with the cost of living crisis, she said. “This winter, there is a need for food, toiletries, Christmas presents and school uniforms, but we know from experience how generous our community is.”
Teachers are going beyond the remit of their jobs to help their communities, but campaigners have warned it’s all adding to a worrying normalisation of food banks when really, it should be the government making sure that people get the help they need.
Sabine Goodwin, coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network, said. “The last thing that schools should be needing to do is provide charitable food aid. This bleak reality reveals the depths of our current poverty crisis. Incomes through social security payments or work must reflect the true cost of living and allow people to feed their children.”
Asked what the government should be doing to help, Cusack said: “Increase the funding for schools. That’s what they could do. They could provide for the services that schools already are running so well. We do make a difference — every day we make a difference — but if they increased funding, there’s so much more we could do to help.”
To support FareShare and help get good-to-eat, surplus food to those who need it most, visit https://fareshare.org.uk to set up a recurring donation or to sign up as a volunteer.
Buy a Big Issue Winter Support Kit for £34.99, you’ll receive four copies of the magazine and vendors could receive immediate tools for survival plus access to vital training and employment pathways to escape poverty for good.