Last Friday my job at a primary school came to an end, and with the excitement for the summer ahead came the worry for some of the children I was used to seeing every day. How many of those kids would come back in September having lost weight or put on weight from a summer of unhealthy eating and little exercise? How many will return sluggish and tired instead of refreshed?
For most children across England and Wales, this Monday marked the start of the school summer. For too many, this means they will spend the next six weeks without enough food.
Some of the 1.7 million children on Free School Meals (FSM) are set to miss out on 24 million meals this summer after the government refused to extend full provision over the holiday. The government instead points to their decision to extend the Holiday Activity and Food Programme (HAFP), a scheme which operates only four days a week across four weeks of the holiday, equating to just 16 of the summer’s 30 weekdays.
Worse still, Free School Meal provision isn’t an accurate measure of need. Eligibility criteria restricts those who are entitled to this service, including children whose parents have no recourse to public funds, meaning many more children will go hungry this summer.
Holiday hunger is not a new phenomenon; for years children have been abandoned by the government when the school bell rings in the end of term. In 2017, an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger report estimated three million children—one million who received FSMs and two million who were not entitled—risked going hungry in the school holidays, damaging children’s health and happiness, and impacting their educational performance when term started again. Government inaction on holiday hunger has always been a travesty, and with the pandemic ongoing, it is criminal.
As ‘freedom day’ arrives, and the government pretends the pandemic is over, many families are still facing the consequences of the last year and a half of government failure. The number of people experiencing food insecurity quadrupled at the start of the pandemic and the Trussell Trust—the UK’s largest food bank network—distributed a record breaking 2.5 million emergency food parcels, with 980,000 going to children. At the same time, almost 700,000 people in the UK, including 120,000 children, have been forced into poverty as a result of the Covid-19 economic crisis.
With the delta variant ripping through the country, the disruption to people’s lives is set to continue: modelling has predicted that up to 10 million people may have to self-isolate in just six weeks over the summer. Throughout the pandemic workers have been forced to choose between self isolating or losing income, as the government has refused to pay for people who have needed to self-isolate, unnecessarily damaging the public health efforts and costing lives.
But the effects of self-isolation also impact people’s food security. Research has found self-isolation to increase the risk of food insecurity, arising from difficulty both in physically accessing food and in affording it. Given all this, it would seem obvious that there should be a plan in place for parents and children who are unable to access HAFP activities, and therefore food, due to self-isolation orders. Unfortunately, the government has overlooked this small detail.
Providing activities for kids over the summer is undoubtedly a good thing, but it is not the complete solution to holiday hunger. Last summer, the leader of the opposition forced the government into a crucial U-turn, ensuring families entitled to FSMs continued to receive food vouchers equivalent to £15 a week throughout the holidays. Celebrated across the country, his hard work meant thousands of children did not go hungry.
Unfortunately, Marcus Rashford has since had to return to his side hustle as a professional footballer. Meanwhile over in the Labour Party, the MP for Holborn and St Pancras Keir Starmer is busy cosplaying as a second-rate Kinnock for the benefit of blue ticks, the party’s bloodthirsty right-wing MPs, and Epstein’s mate.
The National Education Union has now called on the government to reinstate the FSM vouchers and get them to the families who need them this summer. After a successful campaign to close schools in January, with no support from the Labour Party, hope once again rests on the NEU to force the government to do the right thing. Providing food to children over the holidays is not an outlandish demand – it should be an expected feature of any decent society.
Yet, while the NEU’s demand should undoubtedly be supported, we can go further. The Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) recommends a cash first approach to tackling food insecurity, removing barriers to accessing food. A cash first approach means entrusting parents to be able to look after their own kids, reducing the stigma that is at the core of food insecurity.
While some may claim such a radical policy could not work in this country, over in the well-known socialist nation of Scotland, a cash first approach has been shown to have positive impacts on food security. As the authors of the report into the Scottish Welfare Fund write, ‘vouchers are, by their nature, restricting and implicitly suggest the applicant might choose to spend their award on things they “shouldn’t” if they were paid in cash.’
While the Scottish government recognises the benefits of a cash first approach, parents in England and Wales will find little reprieve when schools reopen in September. The government has announced its intentions to end the £20 a week Universal Credit ‘uplift’, plunging more families into poverty and food insecurity. This decision cannot be allowed to go ahead. Instead of waging internal wars, the Labour Party needs to focus on fighting to protect the vulnerable in this country. We cannot continue to rely on premier league footballers to provide the only effective opposition to this catastrophic government.