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We’ve had holiday hunger for 109 years but we can end it this month

January 3, 2018

We chart the history of Holiday Hunger ahead of a real chance for change.

Since End Hunger UK was launched 15 months ago, one of our main focuses has been on ending holiday hunger.

It’s easy to think of this as a new problem, or a new cause, but it’s nothing of the sort.

The law introducing school meals to Britain was passed in 1907, but almost immediately, education officials argued it did not go far enough.

Firstly, the new law allowed schools to provide food, but did not force them to do so. That legal obligation did not come until 1944.

What’s more, officials and campaigners noted another issue: children needed good food every day, not only on school days, and it was unclear where the law began and ended.

In London, at Christmas 1908, the issue came to a head. The West Ham authorities unilaterally decided to keep feeding children during the Christmas holidays, while checking whether they were legally allowed to. Nobody seemed initially to know.

In the London Daily News in February 1909, as the row rumbled on, the phrase “holiday hunger” appeared. TW Watts, chair of the education committee, told that newspaper:

“What we have done we believe to be right and humane, even if not strictly legal… the weather was so severe and the distress so acute at Christmas that we felt bound on the last day of the ordinary school to announce that the feeding centres would remain open to supply those children who were already in receipt of meals under the Act.”

In July 2009, West Ham MP Will Thorne tabled a question in Parliament, but he was advised that education authorities would not be legally empowered to provide meals at public expense.

Others continued to press the matter. In 1914, Bradford MP Fred Jowett cited experiments that had been carried out in his constituency, which clearly showed that children who were receiving school meals gained weight in term time, but then lost weight during the holidays when the meals were not available. You can read his speech here.

Legislation that year removed the halfpenny limit on meal costs, and allowed local authorities to provide meals to children on non-school days, but it was still an option not an obligation.

Fast forward 30 years, and there was more confusion. In 1944, Parliament finally made the provision of meals on school days a requirement, not an option, but there was again no clarity around what councils could or must do at weekends or in the holidays.

The British Newspaper Archive and Hansard contain numerous reports from around the UK of ad-hoc and inherently fragile provision. In 1975/76, 27 local authorities provided a total of 1,015,883 meals during the holidays. In 1977/78, 17 authorities provided a total of 779,555 holiday or Saturday meals. Much of the country had no provision, but it is scarcely conceivable that those places had no need, or that demand vanished from ten council areas in two years.

And so, the issue of children going hungry during school holidays reared its head in Parliament dozens of times, throughout almost every decade of the 1900s. The problem eased at times, of course, through varying social welfare policies and as a side-effect of war-time rationing. But holiday hunger has flared up again many times, as it has done in the past few years.

In 1967, for instance, Plymouth Devonport MP Dame Joan Vickers told Parliament: “It seems fantastic that we give school meals to children who need them during the school term, but not during the holidays. This affects the children of the lower paid worker in particular. Those who can pay the economic price of school meals should be asked to do so, but those who cannot should receive them during the school holidays.”

In 1981, Stockport North MP Andrew Bennett said many of his constituents were dreading the summer holidays, adding: “…They lose free school meals, which, for many children, are an essential part of a balanced diet. Certainly in Stockport, once the holidays start there is no provision for free school meals. There is thus an extra burden on the family.”

Dr Victoria McGowan, a research associate in Newcastle University’s Institute of Health and Society, and an expert in the history of school meal provision, says: “Throughout history governments have intervened to reduce the burden of holiday hunger on children, through specific holiday feeding legislation and social welfare policies to support vulnerable people in times of need.

“Unfortunately, holiday hunger is not an issue resigned to the history books. Children are still suffering during the school holidays and governments can take action to prevent this.

“The impending roll out of Universal Credit could lead to more and more families relying on foodbanks and holiday hunger schemes to see them through the school holidays and without any form of mandated provision.”

Holiday hunger is an issue for many families we have spoken to in recent months.

Grandmother Pat Quick in Liverpool told us: Mums today have not got the funds to feed kids through the six weeks of holiday. Not only that, there are kids not getting fed properly the whole year. When you are working in this kitchen, you notice some children are starving and they are waiting for their breakfast, then they ask “when’s dinner” and the same kids are always coming back for more.

Lianne Glaves in Sheffield told us: “In the holidays, the kids were bored. Finding things to do that do not cost owt was difficult. The schools did some fun days and church did, but only a couple of times. A lot of days they were bored to death in the house; there should be more things to do. And when they are at school, I do not have to buy extra food. Something to deal with holiday hunger would definitely help.”

Now, there are signs that the law may finally change. A Bill tabled by Labour backbencher Frank Field and working its way through Parliament calls on the Government to order all councils to provide food and activities in the holiday for children who might otherwise go hungry, and to give councils the funds they need, using receipts from the new sugar tax.

So far, 130 MPs from six parties have pledged to support the bill, which is due to receive its second reading on January 19.

Dr McGowan says it will not work on its own, without a broader suite of policies to help vulnerable members of society but it is, she says, a good place to start, and the End Hunger UK campaign is rallying support and harnessing the determination of activists, who are often involved in inspiring work in their own communities.

You can help too. Email your MP and ask the to attend and support on January 19.

Lots of projects are already operating. At Lunch Box in Redcar, for example, children can choose a lunchbox then return to have it filled on three days each week in August, with games and crafts provided while the lunch is prepared. Numerous churches, from the north of Scotland to the south of England, have provided summer clubs, focusing on the fun element but knowing that the food is crucial. In Liverpool, a campaign by the local newspaper led to £20,000 in donations, which allowed freshly-prepared meals to be distributed where needed across the city, with some cookery classes provided alongside.

In London, Kitchen Social, a Mayor’s Fund for London initiative, works with local grass root community organisations to create an environment where children and young people can make new friends, learn and get a well-balanced free meal during the holidays. In the summer, they supported 34 community organisations across 16 London boroughs to provide more than 10,000 free meals to more than 1,600 children during the holidays.

Kim Chaplain, Director of Charitable Portfolio, Mayor’s Fund for London said: “Many of the hubs cited seeing an increase in the number of new members attending over the summer and there was positive engagement and interest in healthy cooking and for putting those skills to use at home. Over the next three years, Kitchen Social aims to help 330 local community groups across London feed 50,000 children in a programme easily scalable to a national level.”

But it is clear that limited resources and volunteers can only scratch the surface of the problem, often not able to operate every day, and covering only small areas. Those on the front line realise that if things are to truly change, national leadership is needed.

Josh Fenton-Glynn, manager of the End Hunger UK campaign on behalf of more than 20 organisations, says consensus is growing, and urges the Government to act.

“Everyone should have access to good food, and children in particular need good nutrition 365 days a year, not only on the days when they are at school,” he says.

“Holiday hunger has been talked about on and off for more than a century, and now the tightening financial squeeze on household budgets has brought it into focus sharply again, for millions of families. It’s time for Parliament to say enough is enough and to change the law. If they do so, it will improve the lives and prospects of millions of children, now and in the years to come.”


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