Increase in hunger 'miserable legacy' of pandemic

New gov't-commissioned review calls for free school meals expansion

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Last month, campaigning led by footballer Marcus Rashford forced the government to U-turn on free school meals and agree to extend vouchers for eligible children throughout the summer holidays.

Rashford and others including Unite have continued to call for an expansion of free school meals – and now a review conducted on behalf of the government agrees.

The wide ranging National Food Strategy, dubbed the first government food strategy since war rationing 75 years ago, highlighted the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the poorest families and showed how poverty, obesity and hunger are all inextricably linked.

One of the key recommendations of the review, authored by Leon restaurant co-founder Henry Dimbleby, is to extend free school meals to 1.5m more children, up from the 1.3m currently eligible, to cover every school-aged child whose family is in receipt of Universal Credit. This would mean one in three children would be eligible for the meals.

“One of the miserable legacies of COVID-19 is likely to be a dramatic increase in unemployment and poverty, and therefore hunger,” the report noted. “The effects of hunger on young bodies (and minds) are serious and long-lasting, and exacerbate social inequalities. The Government must move quickly to shore up the diets of the most deprived children using existing, proven mechanisms.”

‘Only proper meal in a day’

The review highlighted why free school meals were so important.

“A hot, freshly-cooked school lunch is, for some children, the only proper meal in the day, providing a nutritional safety net for those at greatest risk of hunger or poor diet,” the report noted. “Only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards of a school meal.”

In his review, Dimbleby argued that income thresholds for free school meal eligibility are far too low – in the majority of schools after the age of seven, only children from families whose total income is below £7,400 before benefits are able to claim free school meals.

“Many of the families on Universal Credit who currently do not qualify for Free School Meals fall well below the government’s own threshold for defining poverty,” the report noted. “Ensuring the health and development of deprived children should be a priority.”

If the government takes up the recommendation on free school meals, the review estimates it would cost an additional £670m a year. The blueprint has also called on the government to fund additional programmes so that summer holiday support is available for children in receipt of free school meals during term time, noting that about 3m children are at risk of hunger over the holidays.

‘This is not about politics’

Expanding free school meals is once again in the limelight after today’s (July 29) publication of the National Food Strategy. Last month, footballer Marcus Rashford wrote a heartfelt open letter to MPs which went viral and is credited with forcing the government to extend free school meal vouchers, first made available when schools initially closed under lockdown, throughout the summer holidays.

In the letter, Rashford recounted how his family struggled to put food on the table despite his mum working full-time. If it were not for free school meals, Rashford said, he wouldn’t be where he is today.

“This is not about politics; this is about humanity,” he wrote. “Looking at ourselves in the mirror and feeling like we did everything we could to protect those who can’t, for whatever reason or circumstance, protect themselves. Political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?”

Following publication of his letter and additional tweets from Rashford, a Downing Street spokesperson said the very next day that all children currently in receipt of free school meals will continue to have access over the summer.

The spokesperson went on to announce a new £120m ‘Covid summer food fund’, which came just hours before an Opposition Day debate where the Labour party aimed to force the government’s hand on the issue amid a potential Tory rebellion.

Make free school meals over holidays permanent

The victory inspired the Unite Community Norfolk branch to team up with others to launch a Norfolk Against Holiday Hunger campaign to make free school meals over the holidays permanent.

For the last three years the branch has run a holiday hunger project in Norwich where they provide hundreds of packed lunches and hot meals for children and families in need during the school holidays with support from other local organisations like the Phoenix Community Centre. All children accompanied by parents have been welcomed, no questions asked.

While demand for the Unite Community lunches has always been significant, the Easter holidays in April just after the lockdown was imposed and now in the summer holidays has seen a massive rise in demand, with families with children coming to collect the lunches as well as weekend hampers of food and other essential items the project now provides.

Unite Community Norfolk branch education officer Charlotte Godden, who is also chair of the Norfolk Against Holiday Hunger campaign, welcomed the review’s recommendations but said they do not go far enough.

“We support the expansion of eligibility but there also has to be a permanent extension of free school meals through all school holidays.

“For so many children, the meal they get at school is the only hot meal that they get a day. So when they don’t get that, it’s a huge pressure on parents who are struggling and obviously really difficult for the children who are used to getting that hot meal and then all of a sudden that stops over the holidays.

“We’re doing everything we can to help our local community but our resources are limited – it’s a national issue and the government needs to step up. While the work we’re doing is vital and we will continue doing it as long as it takes, we’re just putting a plaster on the issue. Today’s National Food Strategy is a good start – but that’s just it, it’s only a start.”

Unite Community national co-ordinator Liane Groves agreed.

“We welcome the National Food Strategy’s recommendations, especially the call to expand free school meal eligibility to all children whose families are in receipt of Universal Credit,” she said. “As we know from our Unite Community branches, who’ve done excellent work supporting their communities both before and during the lockdown , food poverty is a very real and pervasive problem across the UK. Universal Credit often fails to offer the support necessary to protect struggling families from hunger.

“Expanding free school meal eligibility is an important step in tackling child hunger but we are calling for the government to go even further — by making free school meals over the holidays permanent, and what’s more by reforming the Universal Credit system. In the immediate term this would mean an end to benefit sanctions, the five- week wait for UC payment and a permanent increase of £20-a-week for all claimants.

“In the long-term, we need a root-and-branch reform of the entire benefits system to ensure it acts as an actual safety net that protects everyone who needs it from falling through the cracks.”

By Hajera Blagg

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