Blog - June 2020
Why the Government must act to tackle holiday hunger
By Dr Sian Edwards, Lecturer in Education at Keele University; and Professor Farzana Shain, Professor in Education at Goldsmiths and Visiting Professor in Sociology of Education, Keele University.
According to The Trussell Trust more than 14 million people in the UK were estimated to be living in poverty in 2019, with 4.5 million of those being children. A decade of austerity has impacted significantly on family incomes and child poverty with more than 2.2 million people in the UK having little or no daily certainty whether they would eat.
‘Holiday hunger’ refers to the inability to access nutritional food each day outside of school term-time and has been a growing problem for some UK families living in poverty for years. In January 2019, for all school types, 15.4% of pupils, nationally, were eligible for and claiming free school meals representing the highest levels seen since 2014. Outside of school term time, many low-income families find the increased financial pressure during school-holidays challenging, with increases in food bank use recorded during the months of July and August. In 2017, 74,011 supplies went to children in July and August compared to 70,150 in May and June during term-time. The number of parcels distributed to children during the summer holiday 2018 increased by a further 20% to 87,496.
Child feeding initiatives, which provide food to children in school or community settings have grown significantly over the last five years. Following the APPG report on Hunger in 2017, the Department for Education (DfE) launched the Holiday Activities and Food Programmes. In 2018, this scheme allocated £2 million to 7 local coordinators operating existing school holiday feeding initiatives; in 2019 the funding was extended to £9.1 million covering 11 geographic areas. While this government support has been welcomed, the funding remains patchy, with some areas and projects receiving little or no provision depending on where they are located and some children receiving no provision at all. The 2018 and 2019 DfE funding rounds set out to feed 18,000 and 50,000 children respectively across the successful projects. This fell far short of actual need and the problem of child hunger has grown further as result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The support that charities and organisations such as the Hubb Foundation in Stoke-on-Trent provide, is vital in this context but is not sustainable without the commitment of long-term government funding.
With the Covid-19 school closures, many low-income families have lost the benefit of free school meals and are likely to be experiencing increased costs of around an extra £30–40 each week. The inability to access nutritional daily meals during lockdown or ‘shutdown hunger’ is likely to exacerbate already existing inequalities. The UK government cited these existing inequalities as part of their rationale for the phased return to school from June 1st when Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said that children from the most disadvantaged and poorer families were more likely to be impacted by continued lockdown measures.
At the start of the Covid-19 lockdown, during the last two weeks of March 2020, food banks in The Trussell Trust network reported an 81% increase in need compared to the same period in 2019 and provided 6,250 food parcels each day, with 3,000 provided for children — an increase of 122% for children’s parcels. Research carried out by the Food Foundation during the first five weeks of lockdown found that almost a fifth of households with children were unable to access enough food, with meals being skipped and children not getting enough to eat.
The National Voucher Scheme (DfE: 2020) introduced by the government provides £15 (per pupil, per week) supermarket vouchers to the families of children eligible for free school meals, during the Covid-19 lockdown. However, it has been plagued with problems since its announcement. Reports of school staff and parents unable to access the website to redeem vouchers, families left without food provision and teachers donating food for emergency parcels or sending parents to foodbanks are rife. These are unprecedented times and the fast-paced changes are likely to result in further disruption, however when a national scheme is so crucial to the health and wellbeing of so many children, it needs to be implemented quickly and efficiently and it needs to get to those in need.
In 2019, seventy-two per cent of children growing up in poverty, were living in households where at least one person is working according to the CPAG. With the risk of a second wave of mass unemployment expected when the government’s furlough scheme ends the impact of Covid-19 is likely to have severe and long-lasting consequences for children and families already experiencing poverty. Councils and charities report a ‘double whammy of austerity and Covid-19’ and have urged the government to step in more quickly.
While the UK government has taken some steps to support low-income families during the Covid-19 crisis, much more needs to be done. To eliminate holiday hunger the government needs to tackle the structural causes of child poverty and this will require long term and sustained commitments towards providing financial assistance for all families in need. Just three weeks into the lockdown The Food Foundation reported that more than a million people had lost their income as a result of the lockdown with more than a third of those believing they are not entitled to government assistance. In the shorter term, clear messaging is needed to make people aware of the assistance that is available and to get that assistance to people in a timely manner.
Holiday hunger was a significant and growing problem for the UK before Covid-19. It will not be resolved by the short-term measures that have been taken during the pandemic; instead it is likely to worsen. Patchy funding schemes that rely heavily on local charities and businesses to sustain them are not a long-term solution. To avoid the potentially serious damage to the health and educational potential of a whole generation of children the government needs to act to ensure that more universally accessible funding is made available to families in need.