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Welcome news for hungry families – but this must only be the start

July 28, 2018

School holidays should be a time of enjoyment. We can – and must – protect families from being swept into greater poverty, says Josh Fenton-Glynn.

The school holidays are underway, but what should be a time of carefree enjoyment is, in fact, anything but for many children and families. The summer holidays are long and costly for many, but for those on a low income they can exacerbate debt, social isolation and stress.

Saturday’s DfE announcement of £2 million of support to seven projects is, therefore, a good first step – but it must be that, a first step on the road to lasting change.

For children living in poverty, schools in term time offer support services that keeps them and their families well and connected to the local community.  They enable children to reach their full potential, enhance their social skills, become contribution citizens and  for many provide that crucial daily free, nutritious meal. When schools close for the summer, those lifeline services stop.

Food banks and other emergency providers are now regularly reporting increased demand during the school holidays. The additional costs of meals, fuel and childcare all impacting on strained house hold budgets to a much greater degree in holiday periods. We know this leads to parents skipping meals to ensure their children don’t go hungry, and as they try to find activities to keep their children active and stimulated. We’ve been told this directly, by parents such as Tina and Lianne, both in Sheffield.

At the same time, research shows that children who suffer nutritionally during the school holidays also suffer educationally. More than a century ago, experiments in Bradford showed that children’s health was suffering during the school holidays and more recently, three quarters of teachers surveyed in 2017 said that ‘holiday hunger’ was affecting pupils’ education.

We all strive for a just, compassionate, equal society, in which everyone is able to achieve their potential and being food secure should be a government priority, particularly for our most vulnerable. That’s why civil society, MPs and campaigners have been calling on government to redesign the support it gives to families, to ensure the end of term is not a cliff edge for low-income families.

This is a fast-growing issue across the UK, and Scotland and Wales have already allocated funding to support holiday clubs. On Saturday, the Government  announced £2 million of support for holiday meals and activities in England with a view to assessing the impact and effectiveness of current programmes. Further pilot projects are due to be funded for the 2019 Easter and summer holidays.

Summer support works – for everyone

We know that such projects are immensely valuable. A 2017 inquiry heard that children who attend free meal and fun projects during the holidays “eat more healthily, undertake more exercise, demonstrate better behaviour, and return to school in a much improved condition than they would otherwise have done in the absence of those projects. This helps to ensure those children are well-positioned to profit from their education, rather than fall behind their classmates.” Parents reported monetary savings but also increased confidence in cooking healthy food, improved mental health, and often improved economic opportunities, as a result of volunteering or having more time to work.

Lindsay Graham, Child Food Poverty Policy Advisor, said of today’s announcement: “The school holidays can be a challenging and costly time for families, particularly for those on a limited income or whose children are reliant on term time free school meals.

“The need for community led enrichment opportunities for children, young people and their families is paramount for helping the most disadvantaged in our society. Early research in the UK is telling us that these types of projects can make a difference. To tackle child poverty we need to do much more to protect and increase the limited income of struggling families so these projects must also be linked to year round statutory services support.

“I am pleased to see this DfE holiday provision funding announcement in England as it follows similar commitments already made in Wales and Scotland. We have much more to learn about the impact of such projects in the longer term so this is a welcome start.”

Today’s announcement will help around 30,000 children, including in Birmingham, London and the North East. It’s a vital first step, which will protect many families from the rising tide of poverty.  Policy, funding, research, training and a national framework for delivering a nationwide service is what is urgently needed to keep our children and families food secure.

We will be watching the progress on these projects closely and following how the government utilises the learning from this summer to shape its increased funding and commitment in 2019. In the meantime we should all continue to press for policies that will safeguard every child’s right to good nutrition, in every part of the country, on every day of every year.

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