Two million still face holiday hunger risk despite FSM summer extension

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As many as two million children who are not eligible for free school meals (FSM) still face the threat of going hungry this summer.

It has been warned that tackling child poverty and hunger will not end with the extension of the FSM voucher scheme, as many families face financial hardship exacerbated by the coronavirus lockdown.

It comes as a study out this week has found that 43 per cent of families claiming Universal Credit or Child Tax Credits have already cut back on food because of the lockdown. On-going problems with delivery of the FSM vouchers and reduced access to affordable food have not helped.

A new £120 million “Covid summer food fund” was hastily announced on Tuesday (June 16) by the prime minister’s spokesman as the government responded to intense pressure from campaigners over its plans to cancel the scheme at the end of the summer term.

It means that schools will be able to order a one-off voucher for families entitled to FSM worth £15 a week for the six-week school break. Further details are to be published soon, we are told.

Campaigners welcomed the move but have warned that 4.2 million children – around 30 per cent of all UK children – are now living below the poverty line. This figure is expected to worsen given the impact that the Covid-19 lockdown has had on the finances of many families.

A report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger in 2017 estimated that three million children risk hunger during the summer holidays every year – more than one million who receive FSM but also around two million who do not qualify for FSM but whose parents face in-work poverty nonetheless.

Three years on from that report and there are an estimated 1.3 million young people entitled to FSM, and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has meant that many more families have signed up to benefits.

In March, the latest household income statistics (for 2018/19) showed that 4.2 million children (around 30 per cent of all UK children) now live below the poverty line, with 72 per cent of these in working families.

A report this week from Save the Children and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation finds that 43 per cent of families on Universal Credit or Child Tax Credits have already cut back on food (Maddison, 2020).

The research is based on a survey of 3,105 parents of children under-18, undertaken in late May and early June and finds that 86 per cent have already faced extra household costs because of the pandemic.

Half said they were behind with rent or other bills while 60 per cent have turned to payday loans or credit cards. It warns that pressure on supermarket supply chains has also meant limited access to affordable food for families. The report is calling for child benefit to be raised temporarily by £20 a week.

It states: “Families on low incomes have to manage extremely tight budgets with careful planning and resourcefulness, but this seismic shock to daily life has meant struggling to put food on the table, let alone find the resources to support play and learning at home.

“Many families on Universal Credit or Child Tax Credit are not eligible for FSM, but for those who do normally receive this support, feeding children these additional meals has been an extra financial hurdle.”

One London parent told researchers: “My daughter is at home all day so our costs are even higher. Electricity, internet – it all adds up. I’m supposed to get vouchers for FSM but I’ve only received one in four weeks, so I’m spending more on food.”

Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, recently wrote to the chancellor Rishi Sunak to urge the government to reconsider its decision not to extend FSM vouchers into the summer. Speaking this week, she welcomed the reversal but warned that tackling child poverty “does not end here”.

She said: “I am very pleased that ministers have now seen sense and changed their minds. FSM are the last line of defence against poverty and hunger for many families.

“(This) announcement will help many families, but there will still be four million children living in poverty, a number that could increase following the Covid crisis. Tackling child poverty does not end here and should be the mission of every government.”

The 2017 APPG report said that holiday hunger can affect both children and parents and generally takes one of four forms:

  • Occasional or persistent hunger that is caused by a total absence of meals.
  • The hunger parents suffer as they prioritise feeding their children.
  • A low-cost filling, stodgy diet that staves off immediate hunger but “often brings malnutrition into play”.
  • A daily struggle with hunger which dominates family life and often leads to hunger and malnutrition as well as “inactivity, isolation and loneliness”.

The report points to evidence of huge increases in food bank use by families during the summer holidays. It states: “The Trussell Trust, Britain’s largest network of food banks, reported in its submission that the numbers of people seeking help because they could not afford to buy food for their children during school holidays almost doubled in the 2016 summer holiday compared with the previous year. Moreover, Trussell Trust food banks gave 5,000 more emergency food supplies to children in July and August last year than in the previous two months.”

Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, warned that 8.5 million children were living in families with savings less than the average monthly income even before the coronavirus crisis hit. As well as supporting the FSM voucher campaign, he has called for child benefit to be raised by £10 a week.

He said: “Our key workers are battling to help frightened families come out the other side of this but are overwhelmed by the sheer desperation of parents who fear they won’t be able to stop their children from going hungry this summer. Millions of families were struggling even before coronavirus hit and are quickly reaching breaking point.”

The government’s reversal was perhaps inevitable after the pressure from campaigners built to a crescendo in recent days, although it took the involvement of Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford, who latterly became the figurehead of the campaign, to kick 10 Downing Street into action.

On Tuesday, Labour had called an Opposition Day debate in the House of Commons on the issue, while pressure has been growing for some time from education unions, children’s charities, and the children’s commissioner.

The Liberal Democrats also weighed into the debate, pointing out that the government was planning to spend £120 million on a “Festival for Brexit” – the same amount that it would cost to expand the voucher scheme.

At the daily coronavirus briefing on Tuesday (June 16), Boris Johnson claimed he had only become aware of the campaign earlier that day. Confirming the reversal, he conceded: “It is the right thing to do. Clearly FSM should generally apply in term-time, but we have to understand the pressures that families are under right now.”

The government says that schools will be able to order the summer vouchers from existing provider Edenred and that details will be published shortly.

There has been widespread relief at the decision. Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said the vouchers would be a “lifeline for many families across the country”.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, added: “Holiday hunger has always been a great concern for school leaders and this summer is likely to be especially challenging for many low-income families given the impact of lockdown on finances. We are pleased the government has taken action to stop children going hungry over the summer and has committed the necessary funding to extend free school meals.”

Another concern is what FSM children are eating during lockdown. SecEd reported earlier this month on a study showing reduced fruit and vegetable intake for around half of pupils receiving the vouchers. The study from Northumbria University’s Healthy Living Lab found that intake of sugary drinks had also increased for many pupils during the coronavirus lockdown.


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