Kerry McCarthy: Our five key asks to combat child hunger and food insecurity
Hunger has an impact on both mental and physical health for children. The Government should take on our demands to tackle the crisis, writes Kerry McCarthy
It’s shocking that in a country such as ours, one in three children – 4.1 million – live in poverty. Of these, UNICEF estimates that 2.5 million children live in food insecurity, meaning there are times when their family can’t afford to put food on the table, or cannot buy the full variety of foods needed for a healthy diet.
For the past year the Children’s Future Food Inquiry (CFFI), whose members included a cross-party group of MPs, has been listening to young people telling us about their experience of food insecurity and hunger. I’m pleased to have now secured a Westminster Hall debate, on Wednesday 8th May, where I will be speaking about our findings and the Children’s Right2Food Charter, which was launched at an event in Westminster last week [25th April] with Dame Emma Thompson, the CFFI’s ambassador.
The inquiry’s report is the first time the views of children and young people living in food poverty have been collated. Those who contributed – including our 15 young food ambassadors, who did an amazing job – spoke of how debilitating constant hunger can be, and how it affects their ability to concentrate in class. They told us they felt ashamed having to claim free school meals and said that the £2.30 credit was not enough to afford healthier lunches, or to cover breakfast if they did not get it at home.
Many children who do not qualify for free school meals because their (still relatively low, or insecure) household income is deemed to be too high, or because they have no recourse to public funds due to their immigration status cannot afford a decent lunch. The inquiry spoke to children who have been forced to shoplift, scavenge, or barter, just so that they could eat. We heard pitiful accounts of a child’s packed lunch that consisted of just two cold fish fingers, and of children stealing food from bins.
Hunger has an impact on both mental and physical health for children. It affects school pupils’ attainment, attendance and behaviour, if they are too tired, too hungry or are existing on a diet of junk food. Food poverty and food deserts – areas where it is difficult to access affordable healthy food – means we are seeing a rise in both child malnutrition cases and childhood obesity.
"Food poverty and food deserts means we are seeing a rise in both child malnutrition cases and childhood obesity"
Our Children’s Right2Food Charter is a call for action. It has five key asks. Firstly, the Healthy Lunch Guarantee, which includes increasing the free school meals offer to a wider group of children, expanding the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme, and supporting ‘holiday hunger’ schemes.
The second ask is for a Healthy Food Minimum, to support parents and carers to put healthy food on the table, for example by making sure changes to financial support or wages for families take food costs into account.
Thirdly, we are calling for a new, independent Children’s Food Watchdog, to monitor the quality and provision of meals, improve the school eating environment and develop a national menu.
The fourth ask, Health before Profits, including tackling junk food marketing aimed at children and trying to prevent the proliferation of fast-food outlets near schools.
The final ask, Stop the Stigma, is about ensuring children don’t feel ashamed of having free school meals, including renaming them as the School Meals Allowance and increasing the allowance to a minimum £4 per day.
I don’t think any of this is too much to ask. The Minister spoke at our launch. Now that he has time to reflect on our findings, and on what the children told him when he met with them that morning, I hope he will respond to our debate on Wednesday with some firm commitments from the Government.
Kerry McCarthy is Labour MP for Bristol East. Her Westminster Hall debate takes place on Wednesday 8 May