Plugging the gaps to #ENDCHILDFOODPOVERTY

Photo by jamie he on

The phenomenal campaigning and co-ordination by Marcus Rashford on #FreeSchoolMeals and #ENDCHILDFOODPOVERTY is astounding. The galvanisation of civil society to step up to the plate where the Government have absconded their duties is one to be well and truly applauded.

As someone who spent a big chunk of my career in politics as a Senior Researcher to an MP on child food poverty, especially holiday hunger, there is still a lot more that needs to be done to ensure we have the proper systems, structures and safety nets in place. Whilst providing food is the immediate need right now, a whole system wide approach must take place to ensure that all of the issues, when it comes to holiday hunger, are addressed.

What does that mean?

Child hunger and holiday hunger are two massive issue in this country. The wider scale of child poverty in this country cannot be ignored when considering hunger, especially when earlier this year the Child Poverty Action Group estimated that nearly 4.2 million children in the UK were deemed to be in poverty. That is nine children out of a class of thirty. NINE!

This translates into what the Children’s Future Food Inquiry found, to be:

“The number of children experiencing symptoms of food insecurity, or whose family income is evidently insufficient to afford a healthy diet amounts to between 2.5 and 4 million; between 20% and 30% of all children in the UK.”

Let that sink in for a moment. A significant, and exigent, number.

What are the consequences?

That figure not only leads to children going hungry during the holidays but also impacts on their health and on their educational attainment.

Children living in food poverty, or food insecurity, can lead to many health issues, including mental health issues such as depression and anxiety over worries about food.

In the holidays, as we are focused upon right now, we know that holidays – such as the long summer holidays – are estimated to result in weeks of learning loss due to social isolation, low levels of stimulation and activity and poor diets.

This is because families are having to choose between either feeding their children, themselves or stimulating their children’s learning and curiosity through enrichment. Sometimes they don’t even have the money to do one of those basic necessities of life and parenting.

Whilst providing food is an urgency right now, as we go through this pandemic where some of the most vulnerable families in our country have seen their wages slashed or jobs have been lost, simply providing food will not solve the whole problem.

The government has the capabilities to ensure the gaps are filled.

Where did it all start?

The issue of children from the poorest families in our society coming back to school worse off than when they left us at the beginning, of say, the summer holidays is not a new problem. It’s one that all teachers will have experienced at some point and have ample anecdotes in the back of their minds. However, it is one that has become exacerbated by the direction of travel taken by successive governments since 2010.

More and more we have come to hear about food insecurity and holiday hunger, with them both becoming staple parts of our political discourse and vernacular, especially over the last 8 years.

I first came across the term ‘Holiday Hunger’ when the indomitable Lindsay Graham spoke to myself and my then employer, Sharon Hodgson MP, about the issue of holiday hunger. It had existed for over 100 years, as Fred Jowett MP raised during a Private Member’s Bill debate in Parliament in 1914. Nevertheless, the term ‘Holiday Hunger’ was new to me. It struck a chord.

Mapping the problem

Through our work on the All-Party Parliamentary Group for School Food, which I co-ordinated for four and a half years, Lindsay set up a Holiday Hunger Task Force which was to start the initial work around policy and what should be done by government.

The meetings were convened and it was decided that some guidance should be created for charities and organisations to follow voluntarily and that we should map the provision that was already out there with the help of Professor Greta Defyter and her team at Northumbria University through the Healthy Living Lab. The mapping exercise found 428 different projects being run across all four of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom, providing activities for children during the holidays (with 78% providing meals of some kind). The full findings can be read here.

From our analysis of the data and the impact, it was clear that to ensure that child poverty in its widest sense (remembering that child food insecurity and holiday hunger are just a sub-set of this societal ill), there needed to not just be a meal provided but also activities and services offered to families to enhance the benefits of a meal, from family services, employment support to fun and educationally enriching activities.

Who do we learn from?

The problem is solvable. Take for example, again the amazing work of Lindsay Graham who went to the United States to learn more about the work they do over there to address holiday hunger and wrote about it in her report, 170 Days.

The findings were clear …

  • Programmes worked best where government funding was directed towards frontline projects to help delivery.
  • Consistent use of existing resources (no need to reinvent the wheel) such as public buildings, schools and community venues to tap into the community action.
  • A ground-up approach where national programmes drew upon and built upon existing community partnership.
  • The inclusion of enrichment and educational opportunities alongside the food provision.

These are clear ideas that could be transferred across to the work that needs to be done here in the U.K. to provide high-quality and meaningful provision to address child poverty.

We should also learn from the young people themselves, which is what the Children’s Future Food Inquiry who as part of their report into the issue of food insecurity made children a central pillar of their investigations.

The main recommendation to come out of the report was to have a government watchdog set up to monitor action on improving food issues relating to children – from free school meals to junk food advertising and of course, holiday provision.

The key recommendation by the Inquiry on holiday provision was to build upon already existing pilots ran by the government and by civil society, and to establish a UK framework on what good provision looks like and to ensure it includes quality enrichment activities too.

This essentially boils down to needing to plug the gaps in provision we already see.

What next?

There are ideas, strategies and plans out there for government to draw upon. There is no asking for this to be started from new or a blank piece of paper. The Government has guidance, community provision models and the thoughts already at their finger tips. They even have a small pilot scheme, called holiday activity and food (HAF) programme, that runs through the summer holidays, but not through the remaining holidays that could be scaled up. All they need to do is to plug the gaps.

Now it is all about the government having the political will to address the situation well and truly. Not in bits and pieces, not in a half-hearted way and not using smokescreen tactics to kick the issue into the long grass.

Thanks to the work of Marcus Rashford to galvanise society using his clout, what the government now has is society’s buy-in to address this situation. Whilst this is mainly with urgent food provision, the arguments can now be made about how the food sector, civil society and government all come together and come up with a holistic approach that plugs the gaps.

Doing this will allow the government to finally tackle child hunger and food insecurity by creating provision that not only feeds children living in poverty but also enriches their lives too, thus helping take us one step closer to eradicating child poverty.

It’s all there, right at their finger tips, they just need to step up to the plate and plug the gaps.

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