Mary*, mother of three children ages 7,5 and 2, has little faith in the social safety net that’s supposed support her and her family.
“The Job Centre just isn’t interested in helping someone like me,” she says. “I left school at 16; I don’t have any qualifications. I’m 25 now and I’ve got nothing on my CV.”
But her friend Molly* says a job, even a full-time one, doesn’t guarantee her family’s most basic expenses will be met.
“My husband works more than 40 hours a week,” Molly, mother of two children aged 8 and 10, explains.
“I still have to skip meals to make sure my kids are okay. I’ve worn the same leggings for five years,” she adds, smoothing over a frayed hole. “We’ve got a massive mould problem in our home but there’s just no money to fix it.”
Mary and Molly have joined dozens of parents and their children who have dropped in at St. Catherine’s Church in Norwich to pick up free packed lunches – provided by the local Unite Community branch – over the school holidays.
“It’s shocking to see the difference in our family’s expenses in term time and over the summer holidays – there’s sorting out childcare, finding activities, but most of all there’s food,” says Lucy*, another parent of three daughters aged 8,9 and 12.
Lucy isn’t alone in struggling over the summer holidays. A report last year from the All Parliamentary Group on Hunger estimated that the loss of free school meals in the summer adds up to £40 a week to a family’s outgoings.
For a city like Norwich – a place of apparent wealth juxtaposed with pockets of shocking deprivation – this is no mere figure in a government report. It’s a lived reality for the majority of households in some areas – 80 per cent of children in Mile Cross, a ward in Norwich, are on free school meals, compared to a national average of 14 per cent.
Food waste fight
And while so many children in Norwich and across the nation face the spectre of holiday hunger, supermarkets and other retail outlets waste about 4.3 metric tonnes of food each year.
It’s this glaring disparity between not enough on the one hand and far too much on the other that got the Unite Community Norfolk branch and others groups in the city thinking.
Brian Green, Unite Community Norfolk branch secretary (pictured above), took up the cause of tackling food waste in Norwich three years ago, when he was part of the Norwich Claimants Union, a group campaigning for benefits claimants’ rights which later merged into the local Unite Community Branch.
The group protested outside local supermarkets such as Marks & Spencer’s every week for over a year in an attempt to convince these enormously profitable retail giants to donate the surplus food they wasted.
Eventually proving a PR nightmare for the retailers thanks to the group’s tireless campaigning, Marks & Spencer’s caved in and others such as Tesco soon followed suit.
“The change in the supermarket policy nationally towards food waste really began in Norwich,” Brian says. “Now instead of throwing away food, they give it away.”
In response to the change in policy, Norwich FoodHub was set up to centralise and distribute donations from supermarkets to various local groups in need such as food banks.
“Much of what you see here today we got from Tesco through FoodHub,” Brian says as he butters a piece of bread and assembles a sandwich.
The Unite Community free lunches project, which launched in July, has given over 500 lunches to children aged 16 and under this summer.
The lunches consist of a sandwich, a piece of fruit, a drink, a yoghurt and a snack. They were handed out on a first-come, first-serve basis – with no questions asked as long as children were accompanied by an adult — between 12 and 1pm every week day.
Today (August 31) will be the project’s last day, when volunteers and families will celebrate with a big donated cake, but Brian says this is just the beginning – Unite Community hopes to expand into providing lunches over the Christmas holidays as well.
“The best thing about our project is it shows what we can accomplish when we organise, build links with the community and come together,” Brian notes.
The project, after all, is the brainchild of no one person in particular – it’s the result of various groups working together, from FoodHub and Unite Community to the local school, the church, the community centre, and the city’s Labour councillors.
Universal Credit fears
And it’s more than just a packed lunch that the Unite Community volunteers offer.
“Our motto is ‘solidarity not charity’ – which we’ve printed on flyers publicising the free lunches,” explains Unite Community branch chair Geraldine Murray (pictured below). “Some of the families who come here open up about the struggles they face at home, in work, with the benefits system and so on. We try our best to offer advice and steer them in the right direction.”
Geraldine says a widespread fear is the introduction of Universal Credit, which though having faced delay after delay, is planned to be rolled out in Norwich later this year. It will affect over 20,000 people — far more than the 5,000 now claiming Jobseekers Allowance or Employment Support Allowance. The welfare reform, which rolls six benefits into one, was introduced just up the road in Yarmouth two years ago, where it has precipitated untold suffering.
Universal Credit claimants have been serially underpaid or overpaid, resulting in debts and overdue bills, while some have been evicted for failing to pay rent on time after chronically delayed benefit payments. Food bank demand has soared in areas where Universal Credit has been introduced, while about 2.6m children will lose out on free school meal eligibility by 2022 under the new system.
“Giving out packed lunches should only be a temporary measure – it’s certainly not the answer – but beyond making sure these children don’t go without, it provides us with an opportunity to discuss the issues; to help each other understand the real source of the problems such as poverty,” Geraldine adds.
Sue*, who’s come with two of her five children for Unite Community’s packed lunches, knows full well the source of her family’s problems.
“I’m glad it does exist but this programme really shouldn’t have to in 2018 – it should be the government stepping up to support us when we fall through the cracks,” she said. “I’ve seen the social safety net destroyed more and more each and every year. There used to be much more support.”
“Theresa May, she calls us the ‘Jams’ – just about managing,” Sue adds. “Funny how all she’s done is name us, but she won’t help us.”
Indeed, while May and her Tory government have abandoned those most in need, others have shown that there is another way. Labour-run North Lanarkshire Council, for example, became this year the first council ever to commit to providing free school meals to eligible children all year round, including over the summer holidays.
A serious, coordinated effort to tackle holiday hunger by both local and national governments has become more and more pressing at a time when four out of five teachers report children coming back from the holidays visibly malnourished.
But in the meantime, food banks and community groups like Unite’s are left to fill in the gaps.
Sue, who has one child with special needs, hails the community spirit embodied by Unite Community’s lunches but implores everyone who cares about their community to vote.
“It’s the millionaires and the lawyers and businessmen who vote – people who have no idea what our lives are like. ‘Sense of community’ is all well and good but this ‘sense of community’ often doesn’t vote. And if we really want things to change, it needs to.”
*Names changed to protect privacy.
Photos by Peter Smith