Filling the gap

Filling the gap

Three million children are at risk of hunger during the school holidays and while there are some brilliant projects being run across the UK to combat this, it doesn’t scratch the surface of the problem. How can school caterers do their bit? Is it their job to? And will holiday hunger only be solved with statutory intervention? Morag Wilson reports

When you hear of parents spending their school uniform grant on food for their children, you know there is a systemic problem with welfare, particularly during the school holidays. For the families of three million children, the school holidays are a worrying time when they are forced to find £30-40 extra a week per child through the loss of free school meals.

We know that there is a rising dependence on foodbanks in the UK, yet new data from The Trussell Trust shows that during July and August 2017, there were more families with children requiring its support. Its network of over 420 food banks provided more than 204,525 three-day emergency supplies, 74,011 of which went to children. In comparison, during May and June 2017, 70,510 supplies went to children.

“Although our network will be doing all they can this summer to help families struggling to make the money they have stretch to cover the essentials, no charity can replace people having enough money for the basics,” said Samantha Stapley, director of operations at The Trussell Trust.
In truth, we can only expect this pressure on foodbanks to increase as more families and individuals struggle with their new Universal Credit payments, or lack thereof, and wages continue to be stretched.

So what can be done? This summer there are some brilliant holiday projects going on and many organisations are realising the importance of this crisis.

CATERed is an example of a school caterer totally engaged in reaching the children most in need of holiday food provision and it relies entirely on the goodwill of its staff to give up their time to volunteer prepping and serving bagged lunches throughout the holidays. The scheme also relies on donations from local and regional suppliers. The Big Summer Food Tour will serve more than 4,500 free lunches this summer across Plymouth, from car parks and shopping centres to a weekly service at the city’s 12 libraries.

“Last year we had children waiting for us to arrive,” says Anne-Marie Sowden, commercial operations manager for CATERed. “There’s a real need for us to support low income families through the summer holidays. It’s an expensive time and the thought of children going hungry in today’s society because family budgets are so stretched motivates us to do what we can to help. Our staff feel incredibly passionate about looking out for the city’s children, who they see every day during term time.”

It’s the fourth year that CATERed has run its holiday provision initiative and CATERed makes sure that the Big Summer Food Tour is fun and relaxing for families. Of course, it also means that CATERed are able to reach families and promote the regular school meals service, where they can remind parents of the importance of a school meal and encourage them to registered for free school meals and Universal Infant Free School Meals.

Other caterers, such as Hertfordshire Catering Limited (HCL), have teamed up with others to provide catering alongside activities. Fit, Fed and Read is run by the Herts Sports and Physical Activity Partnership and this summer runs in six Hertfordshire fire stations at Stevenage, Watford, Hemel Hempstead, Borehamwood, Hatfield and Cheshunt. It follows a successful trial in two fire stations during the Easter holidays.

For the most part, however, it is charities and church groups who offer the majority of holiday provision. FareShare has joined the plight and this summer it is working with over 200 community groups to provide meals for up to 20,000 children and families this summer. The Kitchen Social programme from the Mayor’s Fund for London aims to feed a minimum of 50,000 children across all 33 London boroughs by 2020. It Meals & More, the initiative set up by Brakes to support holiday provision, has recently become a charity and aims to help even more clubs this summer. Last year there were more than 140 Meals & More holiday clubs, supporting more than 4,000 children, and it has a long-term goal of creating 500 clubs.

However, at last year’s Brakes UK Child Food Insecurity Forum, Brakes CEO Ton Christiaanse admitted that “less than 0.1% of children are reached by Meals & More so we need to increase our activity by 1,000-fold”.

The government’s recent £2m funding for holiday provision has been given to seven organisations that run holiday schemes – Children North East, Family Action, Feeding Britain, Birmingham Holiday Kitchen, Onside Youth Zones, Street Games and TLG (Transforming Lives for Good).

The government will assess the impact of these projects before committing to further funding, it has said. It will look at take-up of the provision, the costs involved, their effectiveness and whether there are particular areas where this kind of programme would be most effective.

Of course, any funding given towards any provision is welcome, but there is a startling omission from the providers using the government funding – local authorities. Frank Field MP’s School Holidays (Meals and Activities) Bill expressly states that there should be a duty on local authorities to “facilitate and coordinate” holiday provision in their area.

And there is some great evidence of where local authorities can offer coordination on provision, particularly as it grows. Wales’ SHEP programme has this summer been rolled out to 56 schemes across 16 local authorities, reaching more than 2,500 children. The Food and Fun holiday provision was the brainchild of Food Cardiff and the Welsh Government has already allocated funding for the 2019/20 academic year in its draft budget, which will expand the programme across Wales.

Club 365 is a new scheme from North Lanarkshire Council, offering free meals and activities for primary-age pupils in receipt of free school meals. Not only does this mean that children get a meal during the school holidays, but at weekends too. Labour has already committed to rolling out the initiative across Scotland if it comes into power in the Scottish Parliament.

The provision of holiday clubs is a patchwork. A stakeholder workshop of the government’s Holiday Activity and Food pilots agreed that there needed to be better coordination of provision in local areas to ensure good coverage of provision and a more strategic overview.

But we can expect to gain a lot more knowledge about the extent of holiday hunger in the coming years as research in ongoing. Just last month, Northumbria University announced findings of its research, the largest ever study of school holiday clubs in England during the 2017 summer break, which found that school holiday clubs, as well as combatting hunger, helped parents by alleviating their stress and improving their all-round health and wellbeing by relieving financial strain.

There will be many caterers and teachers who will notice a difference to some of their pupils when they return to school in September from how they left in July – with worse diets and a loss in learning. Hunger in the holidays should not be a problem in one of the richest countries in the world but it is, and everyone, including school caterers, should act to fill the hunger gap.