Charlie Heritage talks about seeing holiday hunger first-hand, how her housing association is tackling this and what government needs to do
Picture this – a family is sitting in their home at 5pm. They’ve had to miss breakfast and lunch because there was nothing available, and now dinner time has rolled around. Both parents have gone without so their children can have soup and bread, and the two youngsters are guzzling it down. Tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, all look the same.
“I witness first-hand ‘holiday hunger’. Families who can’t afford to put food on the table for their children and the real pain this causes”
You would be forgiven for thinking this is Victorian England, perhaps in something written by Charles Dickens. But you would be wrong.
This is happening today, right now, in one of the most developed countries in the world. As a neighbourhood worker, operating at the heart of communities, I witness ‘holiday hunger’ first-hand – families who cannot afford to put food on the table for their children and the real pain this causes.
There’s not a day that currently passes by when the subject of holiday hunger and free school meals isn’t talked about – but it’s a longstanding issue that affects tens of thousands of families. Statistics released last month revealed that, of 8.89m pupils in England, 17.3% were eligible for free school meals – that is more than 1.5 million children.
Footballer Marcus Rashford’s inspiring campaigning to extend free school meals into the holidays through the pandemic has brought into sharp focus the issues facing families and communities across the country, and the support they need.
It is good news that scores of councils and local businesses have backed the campaign, pledging to feed disadvantaged children over the current holidays.
“It defies belief that, in the 21st century, we are in a position where some children are not having one of their most basic needs met”
But this is not enough. It is clear we need a long-term strategy and approach to tackling food poverty. It defies belief that in the 21st century some children do not have one of their most basic needs met.
For the last three years, through my community work for Sanctuary, we have been providing a lifeline for the children of families facing hardship during the school holidays across Banbury.
The Play: Full initiative, delivered in partnership with a range of local partners including joint funders Cherwell District Council, offers food and adequate nutrition for children who receive free school meals during term times, along with wider activities and days out to help bring communities together.
Operating in some of Banbury’s most disadvantaged areas, the project tackles issues related to deprivation by improving access and opportunities for children.
Educational trips and activities provide stimulation and learning for children that they are unable to access when not at school, while ensuring they get nutritious meals and healthy snacks that would be difficult to get at home.
The model allows us to work with partner agencies across the district at a grassroots level, channeling the support through established relationships to those most in need.
We have provided in excess of 5,000 meals over holiday periods since the project began and are proud to be doing so again this half-term.
But this is only one example – just one area of the country where we see real hardship faced by families who are unable to put food on the table for their children during school holidays.
As a charity and housing provider, we are doing all we can across the country to tackle holiday hunger, and while we’re not alone, it’s not enough.
We’ll continue to support those families through the current crisis and beyond, but the government needs a plan.
It’s been reported that officials in Westminster are considering learning from a holiday activities and food programme that was piloted across 17 council areas over the summer, which would see children being given at least one free meal per day outside term time.
While this may not help this half-term, we hope it is a step towards a long-term solution that can finally put an end to holiday hunger.
Charlie Heritage is neighbourhood partnerships manager at Sanctuary