Now more than ever the government must implement a long-term strategy to combat child hunger
The Prime Minister should work with Marcus Rashford on a long-term solution to end child food poverty. Extending free school meals over the school holidays - at least while Covid-19 restrictions remain and job losses continue - would be a welcome first step.
There is no question, this pandemic has exposed and exacerbated significant education inequalities in our country today.
New evidence shows that 2.2 million children are receiving Free School Meals, with 42% of these children recently registered amid the pandemic. Since the end of March, 32% of families have suffered a drop in income. The Office for Budget Responsibility has forecasted a likely 13.2% rise in unemployment, meaning that 336,500 more working adults could face food insecurity.
So now, more than ever, is the time for the government to come up with a long-term strategy to combat child hunger - not just a series of Elastoplast policy measures, reacting to day-to-day campaigns.
This plan comprises four components.
First, the Department for Education needs to get an accurate grasp of the extent of child food hunger in Britain, by proper data collection. It must examine all the disparate programmes from different Government departments to assess whether they are working efficiently and provide value for money. In September, for example, just 47.3% of eligible mothers were receiving Healthy Start vouchers - and uptake is declining.
Second, the Prime Minister needs to carefully consider the proposals set out by the National Food Strategy, endorsed by Marcus Rashford and his Task Force of prominent supermarkets, retailers and manufacturers. The extension of free school meals over the school holidays - at least while Covid-19 restrictions remain and job losses continue - would be a welcome first step.
Third, the government should provide funding for all disadvantaged schools to offer a free school breakfast to children at risk of hunger, as set out in Emma Lewell-Buck MP’s School Breakfast Bill, which I am supporting.
If you feed children properly, you increase educational attainment, boost life chances and, therefore, cut costs in the long run.
There is an opportunity here to tackle the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers, which is estimated to widen by as much as 75% as a result of recent school closures. Studies have also shown that children in schools with breakfast clubs made two months additional academic progress over the course of a year, compared to children without this provision.
Fourth, we need a programme of holiday activities, offering academic catch-up, as well as mental health and wellbeing support. During the recent summer holidays, I saw the benefits youth camps can bring in my own constituency of Harlow. These activities should be expanded to cover not only the summer, but every half-term, Christmas and Easter break.
Now, I understand that the bean counters at the DfE and the Treasury are concerned about a hefty price tag. But the evidence shows that if you feed children properly, you increase educational attainment, boost life chances and, therefore, cut costs in the long run.
Moreover, as well as the significant cost-savings that can be made by correcting the inefficiencies in existing schemes, ringfencing the healthy £340 million revenue generated by the Sugary Drinks levy each year would go some way to funding these policies.
It is also time for big businesses to take on a much bigger role - beyond a tick-box exercise to meet corporate social responsibility goals. If the Government is going to introduce a comprehensive strategy and fund this, companies need to match this support, be that by redistributing wasted supermarket food, discounting Healthy Start vouchers or other means.
Some may ask, what does a footballer like Marcus Rashford know about food insecurity? Well, first of all, as a footballer, he has just as much right as anyone else to talk about these issues. But second, having depended on breakfast clubs and neighbourly support as a child, he understands child hunger more than most. The Prime Minister should bring him into Number 10, not as a photo opportunity, but to listen and work with him and his Task Force on a long-term solution to end child food poverty.
Robert Halfon is the Conservative MP for Harlow and chair of the Education Select Committee.