The issue of holiday food poverty is intrinsically linked to the issue of term time food poverty. Just ask the families of South East Londonby Alex Shilling / August 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
“I thought I was making a cup of tea for a real man,” my colleague Cindy barks in scandalised fashion at the delivery driver, who has just told her that he doesn’t want any sugar in his tea.
We’re in the kitchen at Plumstead Adventure Playground in south east London, near where I grew up. 15 years ago, it would have been me getting stuck halfway down that slide and ending up with woodchips itching down my t shirt. Today, I’m working.
Since 2010, Plumstead has had an unemployment rate significantly higher than the national average—and a much higher rate of working-age adults claiming job seeker’s allowance. Many families here struggle to feed their children during term time.
Often, these families are supported by their children benefitting from free school meals—but during the summer holidays, feeding their children nutritious meals on a budget becomes even harder.
That’s why I’m working with the Good Food In Greenwich action group, which prepares and cooks hot meals every week day for children across south east London who claim free school meals during term time. Today, Ainsley, I’m making chicken pasta.
The main challenge is keeping the kids occupied and out of your way while you’re cooking. “Is it nearly ready yet?” “Nope.” “Can I have just chicken?” “No Avram. Vegetables are important too.”
The problem of holiday food poverty is a nationwide one and has recently been highlighted by Labour MPs Mary Creagh and Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner. In July 2016, figures from the Department of Education showed that 15.6 per cent of pupils in state primary schools were getting free school meals.
This was the lowest proportion since 2001, but it still led to fears that many pupils living in poverty were not able to benefit from free school meals, due to the eligibility threshold being set at a household income below £16,000 a year.
These fears were amplified last April by St Mary’s University, whose research showed that two thirds of families living in relative or actual poverty were unable to claim free school meals for their children.
The kitchen, which is where meals are prepared for anything from 15 to 40 kids a day and today is accommodating five staff members, is no bigger than the one in my mum’s old house down the road in Greenwich—which felt cramped if more than one person was in it at a time. We do well, though, and soon lunch is served and the first batch of children are on the scene.
Almost every kid says thank you to the staff without prompting from their parents and goes back outside to play. They are all a great credit to their parents and I wish the government would do more to support them and their families.
Around 65 per cent of children claiming free school meals before the election had at least one parent in work and 1.3 million children are predicted to be living in absolute poverty by 2020.
Although Conservative plans to reduce the number of free school lunches, a policy piloted by then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in 2013, have since been scrapped, the issue of the threshold to claim meals in the first place remains.
The Conservatives’ justification for their original policy is that more free breakfasts would be available, and breakfast is the more important meal. Demand for breakfast clubs has risen as the number of families in in-work poverty has risen.
Having a job is no guarantee of being able to put food on the family table and this is something that Theresa May appeared to understand when she first stood on the steps of Downing Street. Likewise, schemes to help feed children from impoverished families are essentially useless if so many of the families who need support are being told that they are too well off to be eligible for support. Earning £17,000 a year does not make you well off.
The issue of holiday food poverty is intrinsically linked to the issue of term time food poverty. If the government would see the benefits of even a small raise in the threshold to claim free school meals and the benefits of means-tested breakfast clubs, families feeling the squeeze would be financially empowered and would be able to plan ahead for the summer.
Yet the Treasury’s brusque response to Justine Greening—a moderate, independent-minded Education Secretary who knows what it is like to grow up poor—when she asked for more funding for schools does not fill one with confidence for the future of the kids in Plumstead, and all the children like them up and down the country.
Jeremy Corbyn and Labour have shown that they are willing to take on the challenges of educational disadvantage; now they must show that they have a plan beyond simply carping from the opposition benches.