Thousands of families across the country breathed a collective sigh of relief this week. The government’s backtracking on the withdrawal of its school meal voucher scheme (thanks, in part, to footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign) was a triumph for many. But while these £15-a-week vouchers (designed only to cover five lunches a week) are a step in the right direction, they fail to plug – by a long shot – the gaping hole in our food system that’s burdening millions of children.
Covid-19 has impacted the UK’s food landscape in ways that are difficult for many of us to comprehend. For others, the fallout couldn’t be more tangible. There are 2.4 million children living in households with unreliable access to food. Of those, 2 million have either relied on low-cost food or unbalanced meals, not had enough to eat, or skipped meals altogether.
The Food Foundation, an organisation that campaigns to improve the UK’s food system, has been tracking levels of food insecurity across the country throughout the pandemic. While it welcomed the government’s U-turn on ending the school voucher scheme, managing director Anna Taylor points out that there’s so much more to be done. “There will be children who aren’t eligible for free school meals who are in desperate need of help – our numbers are much higher than the 1.3 million currently registered to receive them,” Taylor explains.
“Food is often the thing you cut back on when money is tight. If you have to pay the electricity bill or rent, you’d always prioritise that over what you buy to eat. It’s the bit of the budget that you can pare back on – you have to keep up with the rest otherwise you’re going to get the bailiffs in.”
That’s the reality of many parents, including one mother from Bristol who told me, “meals are definitely smaller. From day one of the schools being closed, we had to explain to the children that we just won’t have the same kind of food in the house that we used to. It’s really hard, really frustrating, but the vouchers definitely take the edge off.”
On top of that, a significant proportion (12 per cent) of parents who’ve been allocated voucher haven’t been able to retrieve them – just like mother-of-two Diane from South Sheilds. “They’ve been hard to get,” she says. “They keep saying they’ve sent emails but I haven’t received anything. I keep checking. I’m constantly chasing them up,” she tells me. “I’m trying to take it day by day. When it comes to midnight I think, ‘thank god for that – we’ve made it!’ But every day rolls into one at the moment.”
Fortunately for many, charities and volunteers have been rallying in communities across the UK to work with families like these. From delivering care packages to dropping off fully-prepped meals, these organisations have become vital to thousands – including those who are able to access the vouchers. “KEY Project delivers a parcel every week, filled with tinned food, potatoes, things like that,” says Diane, who approached the charity herself for support. “Although, normally I run out a day or two before the next delivery is due. They’re a really lovely team who make the time to check how you’re doing when they drop round the parcels. It’s helped hugely.”
Demand has trebled for KEY Project in South Tyneside, which is supported by larger charity Feeding Britain. Through a number of regional partners, Feeding Britain distributes food parcels and cooked meals to households across the country. Funded entirely by donations it is, remarkably, on track to send out its millionth meal at the end of June.
Yet more impressive figures are being achieved by Fareshare. As the UK’s largest food charity, it redistributes surplus food to those who need it and is providing meals and snacks to 50,000 children each week. Meals & More is doing similar work, funnelling food aid through local organisations to reach children throughout the UK. Normally providing food for children’s clubs where they can come and eat in a social environment, it’s pivoted to funding care packages – so far, it’s sent out 50,000.
As with all these initiatives, this is made possible not only by a huge amount of manpower, but also the generosity of the public and other organisations. And it seems that generosity has been flourishing since lockdown, with people either rolling up their sleeves to give their time or helping by way of cash donations.
Transforming Lives for Good, a children’s charity that has been focusing on supporting families without enough food and supplies, set up its Give a Box of Hope campaign in March, and since has raised more than £30,000 from 517 supporters through its crowdfunding efforts.
Yet funding still remains a barrier for most of these organisations when it comes to serving their communities. “Our costs are up more than 30 per cent because of demand, but we’ve seen a drop in predicted income of around 40 per cent, as all our usual classes and services have been suspended or cancelled,” says Claire Allen of Bristol’s Square Food Foundation, a charity which operates a cookery school to fund its work in the social sphere. Currently, it’s delivering 275 meals a day (up from 80 at the start of lockdown) as well as DIY recipe kits prepared by a band of volunteers.
“The kits include a bag of pre-weighed ingredients, recipe sheet and link to a cook-along video tutorial with one of our teachers,” says Allen. This virtual cooking club of sorts is designed to provide a meal to tide families over at the weekend while also acting as a fun, engaging activity for kids, helping alleviate the now all-too-familiar tensions and boredom of lockdown. “We just want to make sure people have enough to eat,” says Allen. “It’s a simple humanitarian service.”
It’s not just money that the public are donating to support school children and their families though: some are sharing homecooked meals through food app OLIO. Originally developed to help neighbours share food which might otherwise go to waste, the app recently launched its #Cook4Kids campaign, encouraging its users to prepare simple meals for school children in their communities. Users can cook a meal and post it on the app, and a family make a request for it before picking it. With two million members (three-quarters of which are in the UK), it saw 10,000 meals shared in the first 10 days of the new campaign.
The remarkable generosity of the public and efforts of these organisations – and plenty more besides – are improving the circumstances of millions of children in a palpable way. But families shouldn’t have to rely on altruism forever, says Taylor. “Children’s food insecurity hasn’t been a political priority until now. That’s really changed in the last few days, which is fantastic. But we need to grab this opportunity, otherwise it’s going to be a huge legacy of poor health among our children.”