Why do 3 million children go hungry over school holidays in the world's fifth richest country?

United Kingdom
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© Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

More and more households use food banks and struggle to make ends meet without free school meals, writes Paul Donovan.

Hunger does not seem to be a subject that has figured prominently in the present general election campaign, yet its growing occurrence is a national disgrace, particularly among children.

Two recent reports highlighted the growing scandal. The first from the Trussell Trust, which administers 427 foodbanks countrywide. It reported how the number of people receiving emergency three-day supplies of food rose by 73,000 over the past year to 1.182,954 people. The total included some 460,0000 children.

The primary causes of referral to foodbanks were low pay (26.45 per cent) and benefit delays (26.01 per cent)

The second report titled, Hungry Holidays, from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger (APPGH) told how up to three million children risk going hungry in the school holidays.

The ever growing number of people going to food banks is testimony to a society that grows more and more unequal with each passing month

‘This group comprises over a million children growing up in poverty who receive free school meals during term time, as well as an estimated two million who are disqualified from free school meals because their parents work for their poverty,’ says the report. The latter group are those so low paid that they receive working tax credits.

There are many children across the country who receive free school meals, as well as attending breakfast and supper clubs where they can be fed. However, during the 13 weeks of school holidays, these same children can fall down the cracks. The meals that were being provided suddenly disappear.

For those on low pay, the need to suddenly provide previously supplied meals adds to the pressure on already strained budgets.

The hunger is evidenced in a number of ways, with some children simply not eating, parents going without so that their children have something to eat, and others who provide cheap stodgy food which does not fill hungry stomachs and can bring about malnutrition.

The report describes some children vomiting or dropping out of physical activity session, as they had not eaten properly for days.

These conditions also stop the child actually being a child in the sense of being able to enjoy their holidays, going out to play and be with others.

Evidence received by the APPGH revealed how ‘those children who exist on an impoverished diet, while taking part in little or no activity, return to school malnourished, sluggish and dreary-some even lose “significant” amounts of weight, whilst others gain a lot of weight.’

This group are disadvantaged compared to their counterparts who have had happy, healthy holiday breaks. They are then likely to fall behind – the rich/poor divide thus being further increased.

The response to the sight of so many children suffering from hunger has come in the main from the schools, church and community based voluntary groups. They have set up holiday meal and fun ventures to meet the growing need. These have helped children and parents alike, not just with the provision of food but also with information on nutrition, budgetary and other skills.

The APPGH has called for government to impose a statutory duty on local authorities to ‘facilitate and co-ordinate the delivery of free meals and fun during school holidays.’ There should be flexibility in the delivery of these services, with the APPGH suggesting that the voluntary sector plays a leading role.

The APPGH asks for government backing after the general election for its Free School Meals (Provision in Holidays) Bill, which would impose the statutory duty on local authorities and provide the flexibility for those authorities to provide the services required in their areas.

The work should then be funded by £41.5 million from the sugary drinks levy to ‘abolish school holiday hunger’. There should also be training and minimum standard provisions.

Something certainly needs to be done to address the scandal of growing hunger amongst children and adults in what is the fifth richest country in the world. The ever growing number of people going to food banks, amid a country that boasts over 100 billionaires is testimony to a society that grows more and more unequal with each passing month. A country that likes to think it is progressing forward into the 21st century but in terms of much of the population seems only to be going backward to ever more Dickensian times for many people.

It must be hoped that the political parties pick up the challenges put down by these two reports to address the growing levels of poverty and inequality in our society. Failure to do so will lead only to ever more serious consequences in the future.

Visit Paul Donovan’s blog at: paulfdonovan.blogspot.com

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