Should we be offering free summer holiday meals for the poorest?1
August 28, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
I yield to no-one in my insistence that the existence of food banks in this country is a stain on our society. No government should be presiding over a situation in which there is so much wealth spread so unevenly that people are having to walk into a room and basically beg for food. It is in summer holidays that the true extent of poverty in the country is revealed, because demand for foodbanks increases by at least 20%.
Why? Because children no longer get free school meals. If we are really not going to do more to address the inbuilt inequality of this country, if we are really not going to address the in-work poverty that is such a blight on a political culture that tries to pretend that work pays, if we are still simply going to hope that someone else such as charities or philanthropists solve our poverty issues instead of concerted, constructive, brave government action, then we need to address the fact that so many children are going back to school in September seriously underweight and malnourished.
Having worked at a school with around 40% of pupils on free school meals I know how much those meals are cherished by the pupils and their families. For a parent to know that their child is guaranteed at least one full hot meal a day can be a lifesaver. But these kids only go to school for 190 days a year, which leaves another 175 in which parents have to feed their children with their benefit income or maybe on minimum wage. With rents growing and the cost of living rising this can be a real struggle. Council run holiday clubs in Liverpool have been reporting that they are not only having to feed the children who they are looking after but also the famished parents who are turning up, many of whom have starved themselves to make sure their children eat.
But sometimes not even that is enough, and children are going back into school seriously underweight. This means that it takes a few weeks of school meals to get them back up to normal weight, but also a few weeks for them to regain the strength to get back into learning successfully. This is bad enough when we are talking about children of school age, but what about when a parent needs to feed a baby as well as their older children, when it can be a matter of life and death. What if they can’t breastfeed? They have to buy a milk powder, which isn’t cheap. I wonder how many just be tempted during the summer to shoplift? I wonder if the courts would ever take this situation into account? I wonder if we will ever think proactively about how to solve the causes of people needing foodbanks? I wonder if we could make this the last summer in which so many children and parents fear where their next meal can come from. Maybe the answer is for councils to provide lunch in the school canteens for pupils on free school meals through the summer? Of course, that will need money, and let’s not forget, it addresses the symptoms of the problem, not the causes.
Sadly, there is an election in May. The political parties need donations to fund their campaigns. Those donations aren’t going to be from people who need foodbanks. They will be from people who could help solve the problem by paying their fair share of tax or paying the living wage. Think that will be forced out of them in an election year? Think again.
I am deeply pessimistic about this situation improving. The UK seems to be moving towards a USA-style culture where individuals in need are at the mercy of local charity. New Labour is alive and well, so don’t expect much to change after 2015’s election.