No child should be condemned to summers of hunger and isolation
We must make sure all our children are returning to school healthy and well-nourished, says Ruth Smeeth MP.
‘So what did you do over the holiday?’
That’s the seemingly innocuous question that thousands of children will be returning to this week as they return to school after half term.
It is a natural enough question, but one which will be anticipated with a sense of dread by too many children who fear admitting, or remembering, not a week of fun and relaxation but one of hunger and boredom.
The first question I asked as a new MP in 2015 was on holiday hunger, the simple question of what happens to children who receive free school meals during the school holidays? Then, the plight of those families who couldn’t afford to feed their children during school holidays was barely on the political radar. It should have been obvious – after all, the necessity of free school meals has been recognised in our society for over a century. Yet somehow, no one had paused to think about what might happen to those children when the school term ends and that provision disappears.
All too often, the answer is that those children simply go hungry – or mum and dad do. One third of parents in the UK have had to skip a meal so that their children could eat during the school holidays, and that rises to a staggering 75% for families who earn less than £15,000 a year.
School holidays mean finding enough food for up to ten extra meals, per child, per week. When you add in the cost of extra childcare for working parents the burden that too many face is clear.
In my own constituency the problem is acute. 31% of children in Stoke-on-Trent North and Kidsgrove are born into poverty. The majority of in working families. This is not the result of laziness or poor priorities. It is a symptom of the growing crisis of in-work poverty.
Behind those statistics lie too many stories of young lives lived without joy and the innocence of childhood. Stories of children spending their summer holidays hungry and isolated, denied even the basic necessities as their families struggle to cope.
Hearing heart-breaking stories from parents and teachers, about children who were struggling even during term time, I knew that something had to change. My constituents needed more than kind words, they needed action.
That is why in 2017, with a leading local businesswoman, Carol Shanahan, we brought together charities, schools, and volunteers to deliver a landmark Holiday Hunger pilot scheme across the constituency. Carol and the Port Vale Foundation now lead the way across the city in delivering for local families.
The ‘Fit and Fed’ pilot took place throughout the extended summer break of 2017 to help support low income families and their children and provided fun activities in partnership with Streetgames, as well as a healthy meal, Monday to Friday for six weeks. The goal was not just to provide food and activities to children in need of both. It also aimed to secure real, meaningful data to establish how best to deliver similar schemes in the future.
They trialled different locations and different delivery methods to see what worked best, from meals on wheels services to all-day activity clubs. They hosted primary school children in the secondary schools they were set to move up to so that they could get a flavour of the next phase in their education, and worked with the local YMCA to facilitate community meals where the whole family could turn up at lunchtime and enjoy a free, hot meal.
Over the course of the summer over 10,000 meals were dished up to children across my communities, all the while stress-testing the different ways of delivering effective Holiday Hunger provision. My city came together and touched the lives of hundreds of children who – without these projects – would have faced a summer of hunger and isolation.
Since then local efforts to support families through the holidays have gone from strength to strength. This year there were even more activity clubs and even more meals served.
Nationally, too, the conversation is finally beginning to move forward. This year I was proud to support Frank Field’s private members bill on School Holidays (meals and activities), a Parliamentary campaign which helped secure £2 million from the Government to support food and activity schemes across the country.
This week, my Westminster Hall debate will give us a chance to make these stories heard, to share best practice, and to tell the Government that there is still so much more to be done.
In a civilised society, no child should be condemned to summers of hunger and isolation. Our future depends on the next generation being given the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
That starts with making sure all our children are returning to school healthy and well-nourished.
Ruth Smeeth is Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North