Shamefully, hunger is becoming a common experience for millions of children across the UK, but can appeals to a Government that delivered so much austerity, and is now lost in Brexit bickering, really be moved to act?
By Mark Cantrell
MILLIONS of children are going hungry in the UK as food poverty tightens its grip on some of the nation’s poorest households, two new reports made clear today; unsurprisingly, campaigners are demanding action to ensure everyone has enough to eat.
The Trussell Trust has revealed that the demand for emergency aid from its foodbanks continues to soar, with 1.6 million food parcels given to people in the last year; demand has risen 73% in the last five years, the charity said.
Meanwhile, 4.1 million children live in poverty in the UK, with an estimated 2.5 million living in food insecure households, according to the Children’s Future Food Inquiry, coordinated by thinktank the Food Foundation, which launches its report in Westminster today.
This food inquiry is said to be the first attempt to directly and systematically seek the views of children and young people living in poverty across the UK.
It has spent 12 months investigating children’s food insecurity in each of the four UK nations, and the project’s final report pulls together direct input from hundreds of young people, frontline staff, academics and experts.
The report calls for “robust” policy responses by ministers, and the creation of an independent Children’s Food Watchdog to tackle food insecurity in the UK.
“In a wealthy society that claims to value compassion and humanity, how can we tolerate the injustice of millions of children going hungry?” said Dame Emma Thompson, Children’s Future Food Inquiry ambassador.
“In the face of the Government’s refusal to help, the Children’s Future Food Inquiry has brought together hundreds of young people to hear about their lived experience of food poverty, and it’s time we listened to what they say. It’s the younger generation who will deliver the change that’s so urgently needed: we must act now to ensure every child in the UK has their right to food.”
The inquiry’s evidence was gathered from workshops with nearly 400 children in 13 different locations around the UK, an academic review of child food insecurity, polling of young people aged 11-18 years, more than 100 submissions of evidence from people working with children, a UK-wide policy review, and secondary analysis of government data on the affordability of a healthy diet.
“It is just wrong that in our society a growing number of people, including children, are going hungry because of our consistent failure to get to grips with poverty.” Campbell Robb
The report was initiated by a cross party group of MPs, peers and civil society experts, including Bruce Adamson, the Children & Young People’s Commissioner in Scotland; Professor Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics & Child Health; and Matthew Reed, chief executive of Marie Curie and formerly chief executive of The Children’s Society.
It covers all four UK nations, and looks at the three settings that characterise children’s lives: pre-school, school and home. It presents the views of young people and those who work with them on the barriers to nutritious food for children in the UK, and addresses issues including holiday hunger, unhealthy food marketing and the stigma attached to free school meals.
“Children living in poverty have told this inquiry directly that they don’t have enough to eat, and that the food their parents can afford is harming their health,” said Anna Taylor OBE, executive director of the Food Foundation.
“We should care about unlocking our children’s potential, but instead the food insecurity experienced by millions of young people in the UK is hindering their growth, crippling their confidence and making it impossible to learn and develop. The inquiry’s report and its recommendations prove that there are things we can do, right now, to make sure children have enough nutritious food. It’s an opportunity to right the wrongs we have tolerated for too long – we cannot let it pass us by.”
Sharon Hodgson, MP for Washington and Sunderland West, shadow minister for public health, and co-chair of the Children’s Future Food Inquiry, added: “I believe that no child should be going hungry or experiencing food poverty… Children are falling through the safety net, and families are having to rely upon charities and service providers for things such as breakfast clubs, holiday provision and foodbanks.
“These children, and their families, need support from the Government in order to have access to healthy and affordable food. The Government must take this issue of food poverty seriously, and it must include young people in the conversation.”
Meanwhile, the answer to Thompson’s rhetorical question about tolerating millions of children going hungry, likely depends on attitudes towards welfare reform. At risk of bad satire, if their parents are claiming benefits, then there’s a Dickensian streak of ‘just desserts’ at play, fuelled in part by ‘scrounger’ narratives put about by politicians and media alike over many years.
Nonetheless, hearts aren’t entirely hardened, as continuing donations and public support for foodbanks demonstrates. Even so, it can’t ease the sting in the tale, as the Trussell Trust releases its latest grim findings on the extent of need for their emergency provisions.
The organisation said that 2018-19 was the busiest year for the food banks in its network since the charity opened.
During the past year, 1,583,668 three-day emergency food supplies were given to people in crisis in the UK. More than half a million of these (577,618) went to children, it said. This is an 18.8% increase on the previous year.
The main reasons for people needing emergency food are benefits consistently not covering the cost of living (33%), and delays or changes to benefits being paid.
Universal Credit is not the only benefit payment people referred to food banks have experienced problems with, the Trussell Trust said, but issues with moving onto the new system are a key driver of increasing need.
Almost half (49%) of food bank referrals made due to a delay in benefits being paid in UK were linked to Universal Credit.
The charity said it believes ending the five-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment should be the Government’s first priority to help create a future without food banks.
“What we are seeing year-upon-year is more and more people struggling to eat because they simply cannot afford food. This is not right,” said Emma Revie, the Trussell Trust’s chief executive. “Enough is enough. We know this situation can be fixed – that’s why we’re campaigning to create a future where no one needs a food bank.
“Our benefits system is supposed to protect us all from being swept into poverty. Universal Credit should be part of the solution but currently the five-week wait is leaving many without enough money to cover the basics. As a priority, we’re urging the Government to end the wait for Universal Credit to ease the pressure on thousands of households.
“Ultimately, it’s unacceptable that anyone should have to use a food bank in the first place. No charity can replace the dignity of having financial security. That’s why in the long-term, we’re urging the Government to ensure benefit payments reflect the true cost of living and work is secure, paying the real Living Wage, to help ensure we are all anchored from poverty.”
Responding to the two reports, Campbell Robb, the chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), said: “It is just wrong that in our society a growing number of people, including children, are going hungry because of our consistent failure to get to grips with poverty. When the use of food banks reaches a record high, we are beyond the language of warning signs and wake up calls. Unless we take bold action to solve poverty, we risk undermining what we stand for as a country.”
The JRF is calling for reforms to social security, housing, and the jobs market to tackle poverty and, by extension, food insecurity. It recommends:
- Reforming Universal Credit to ensure it more effectively loosens the grip of poverty on families. This requires action to ensure people receive support faster and that the amount they receive properly covers the prices they must pay
- The delivery of at least 90,000 low-cost rented homes built each year so everyone can access a decent, stable and affordable home
- The Government should invest in places where people are locked out of opportunity by giving local leaders the funding and tools they need to help deliver more jobs with better pay
“None of us want to live in a country where a child’s health, education and future prospects are restricted because their family is locked in poverty,” Robb added. “But this is far too often the reality across the UK. If we are to build a compassionate and just society, we must work together to act on the concerns of families struggling to make ends meet.
“Low pay, insecure work, high cost of living, especially housing, and an ineffective social security system are holding people back from a decent life. At a time when we are deciding the future of our country, we must redesign the systems that lock so many people in poverty.”