By Lindsay Graham
For some of the poorest families in the UK, the school summer holiday is not a time of sandcastles, ice-cream and fun. It's a time of stress and angst.
A recent study revealed 62% of families on an income of £25,000 per year or less were sometimes unable to afford food during the school holidays and almost 31% of parents on a low income said they sometimes skipped meals so their children could eat instead.
During term time, around 1.7 million children are registered for free school meals. For some this will be the only hot meal they receive each day. For the 13 weeks of the year when schools are closed, this is not available to them.
The term 'holiday hunger' is not new. We have been aware of the issue for over 100 years but there is still no central government support or policy on this social injustice and to date most help for families has come from the charitable sector.
The last decade has seen the UK invest billions of pounds of public money in improving school food - the quality, the kitchens and the training of a workforce bigger than the navy. We have seen the introduction of universal infant free school meals in England and Scotland increased eligibility in Northern Ireland and free breakfasts in Wales. This is all great and a very welcome policy change, but if we place so much importance on free school meals during term time why is so little being done to provide food during the holidays?
The all party parliamentary group on school food has been looking at this issue for the last two years. Chair Sharon Hodgson shadow minister for women and equalities set in motion the holiday hunger task group, made up of 16 different organisations and charities with an interest in children's food. The group developed a simple guide for any organisation wishing to deliver holiday provision. It also advocates that food provision should be aligned to enrichment opportunities for children, to help ensure programmes are inclusive and fun.
In the USA the issue is taken seriously. There is a fully funded USDA federal government policy which has been in place for over 25 years. Money comes directly from the federal purse to support statutory and voluntary organisations to deliver meals to children in their own communities who are eligible for free school meals during term time.
Last year, I visited nine states across America on a Winston Churchill fellowship to see the programmes in action. It was without a doubt the most humbling and inspiring journey of my life. I saw families in New York city queuing for food from specially adapted food trucks, school buses driving through rural areas and children running out to meet them, and church halls and youth centres in some of the most dangerous parts of cities offering food and support to children in need. Not once did I see any sign of stigma. It is a remarkable policy which the UK government could learn many lessons from.
I took some of that learning back to the UK in the shape of a report called 170 Days and it was sent to ministers in all four UK government regions seeking a response and asking for support. It has proved difficult to get any one department to accept it as their responsibility, partly because it's an issue that's outside current services however that shouldn't stop ministers from grasping this century old issue and making a change for the better.
The holiday hunger task group recently held the UK's first national conference on the topic with delegates attending from across the country. Feedback from the event, along with new research findings and reflections from holiday provision visits, will make up a short report to the APPG on school food in October. Once approved by the APPG the report will go to Government ministers in all four UK regions
Some of the recommendations from the report may include:
• Government investment in funding of Holiday food and enrichment programmes that are locally led and supported.
• A call for more research into effective holiday provision for families in need
• Development of supportive framework for a sustainable policy that can be monitored on progress
Over the summer, I am spending time visiting holiday meal projects around the UK. It’s a journey that I hope will keep me grounded and informed on the issue of holiday hunger. The UN convention on the rights of the child states that children have the right to education, play and food. I'm optimistic 2015 will be the year we start respecting at least one, if not all, of those rights during holiday periods.
This government has a responsibility and duty of care to the welfare of the next generation of worker's and tax payers. We need urgent investment and intervention, without it we will have even more children going hungry in the school holidays.
Lindsay Graham is a UK school food and health policy adviser.
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