Opinion

Child food poverty debate: What MPs should know

MPs will debate Marcus Rashford's petition - which amassed more than 1.1 million signatures - to end child food poverty. Sabine Goodwin, coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network, explains what must be done to stop kids going hungry

Fighting child food poverty means "looking at the bigger picture", writes Goodwin.

Fighting child food poverty means "looking at the bigger picture", writes Goodwin. Image: Pixabay

Thanks to Marcus Rashford’s exceptional campaigning work, a long-awaited debate on child food poverty will take place this afternoon. With figures published last week by the End Child Poverty coalition putting the pre-pandemic figure for children living in poverty in the UK at 4.3 million, this debate couldn’t be more urgent.

Recent Trussell Trust data found that nearly a million of the 2.5 million emergency food parcels distributed by their network in the last year went to children. Independent food banks have also seen a particular increase in need for emergency food parcels from families in the last year.

The petition behind today’s debate, signed by more than 1.1 million people, focussed on three key asks two of which have already been taken on board by the government – providing holiday meals and activities and increasing the value and reach of Healthy Start vouchers. The third ask, expanding eligibility to free school meals to all families on universal credit, remains elusive.

These three measures, based on National Food Strategy recommendations, can and will mitigate against the effects of child food poverty. But we need to focus on the fact that there is no chance they will end it. This afternoon’s debate presents MPs with a critical opportunity to turn the spotlight on actions to address the root causes of child food poverty and put an end to it for good.

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Part of the solution to escalating child food poverty is to look at the bigger picture. Disaggregating child food poverty, just like period poverty, fuel poverty or furniture poverty, might compartmentalise the problem but it’s impossible to stop children from going hungry if we don’t address the key driver involved – poverty. Children facing hunger live with millions of parents and guardians struggling to afford to buy food because of insufficient social security payments, job insecurity and inadequate wages. If we want to end child food poverty, we need to do much more than advocate for food-based interventions that will only help fill the gap. We need a joined-up cash first approach to food insecurity.

As Helen Barnard of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation put it this morning: “Food poverty is just poverty. People aren’t going hungry because they can’t get food. They’re going hungry because they can’t afford food.” As increasing numbers of food banks continue to distribute yet more emergency food parcels, we need to see urgent action to address the poverty driving food bank use and wider food insecurity.

At the very least the £20 uplift to universal credit must be made permanent and extended to legacy benefits – 2.2. million people have been excluded from the uplift for more than a year. In the long-term, social security payments need to match the cost of living. The removal of the benefit cap and the 2-child limit is crucial while ending the 5-week wait for universal credit would significantly reduce the number of people having to use a food bank.

Easily accessible and well-promoted crisis grants in every local authority in the UK are vital elements of a robust safety net. And permanently suspending no recourse to public funds status is critical for countless adults and children impacted by poverty.

And last but, not least, we need to see a real living wage and job security placed at the heart of any advocacy to end child food poverty. Most children living in poverty are in working families and in-work poverty is at record levels.

Employers across the UK, including members of the End Child Food Poverty Task Force, need to play their part and take action to reduce growing in-work poverty.

A strategy to end child food poverty, and the poverty behind it, is needed more than ever. Now is the time for a cash first approach to food insecurity and to stop children going hungry in the first place.

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