Holiday hunger: a national shame

By Bernadette Meaden
July 23, 2016

The start of the school holidays should be a happy time for children, but in too many cases the anticipation of leisurely sunny days and fun activities has been replaced by worry and anxiety. For many families, the problem is no longer how they will organise childcare and fill the hours to keep their children occupied, but how they will fill their stomachs now that they don’t have breakfast clubs and free school meals to rely on. ‘Holiday hunger’ has become an accepted term to describe this unwelcome new reality, like ‘survival crime’, ‘funeral poverty’ and other expressions which describe life in times of austerity.

In 2014 the Trussell Trust reported that thirty nine per cent of teachers said there were pupils in their school that do not get enough to eat over the school holidays. 'More than a third of these teachers notice children coming back after the holidays with signs of weight loss’.

In its report, Britain’s not-so-hidden hunger  published in April this year, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger took evidence from Birkenhead, South Shields and Ayrshire.  They reported,

‘The signs of childhood hunger in some cases – we know not how many – become most visible to school staff on Monday mornings or the first day back from the school holidays. Teachers and school cooks find on such occasions that, in the absence of free school meals, successive days for some children have passed by without a proper meal. One headteacher reported that, "Following school holidays, when some pupils are asked what they have missed most about school, a number of pupils will report that they have missed getting their lunch."

In the Foreword to the Group's report, Frank Field MP, Chair of the Group writes, "We report here of one little mite in Birkenhead, knowing that there was free food and fun in the town for poor children, pleading to be fed, being prepared to miss the fun if that was the world’s entry fee to food. She told the volunteers, 'I don’t mind missing the activities, but please can I come in and eat? I’ve had nothing today and I’m starving.'"

Fortunately, there are many foodbanks and schemes throughout the UK which have stepped in to provide food for children who would otherwise go hungry during the summer holidays. Schemes like Make Lunch, ‘a network of churches working to fill the holiday hunger gap’. But a patchwork of different schemes and foodbanks, vital though they are, cannot reach all hungry children, and cannot eliminate the underlying poverty which means some parents are unable to feed their children. That problem can only be properly addressed by the government.

Yet far from acting to eliminate it, some hunger is actually caused by government policies, perhaps the most obvious one being benefit sanctions. This week, the West Cheshire Foodbank published a report, Still Hungry. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/23277)  Drawing on two years of detailed statistical data from West Cheshire, academics found that,"‘of people affected by benefit sanctions, more than one in five was a child". They also found that, "The duration of crisis for people experiencing a sanction was noticeably longer than other referral reasons. Sanctions were more likely than any other reason for referral to result in an income crisis lasting 13 weeks or longer."

Let’s think about that for a moment. A child can go hungry, or become a foodbank user, because the government is punishing their parent for being late for a Jobcentre appointment, or having a CV deemed unsatisfactory. And what if a child’s parent is sanctioned at the beginning of the summer holidays, leaving them with no money for weeks or months? What happens to that child, without school meals and with little or no food in the house?

The Still Hungry report calls on the Department for Work and Pensions to ‘Introduce robust safeguards for people to ensure that sanctions never place individuals or families in a position where they cannot afford food or other essentials.’

Ensuring that people are not in a position where they can’t afford food would seem to be an absolute minimum requirement for a functioning welfare state, indeed the whole point of why the welfare state was set up. The fact that the state is now taking actions that actually cause some adults and children to go hungry should be a national scandal.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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