Child Food Poverty – when will we stop to ask what the actual problem is?

There is a point in a crisis where people are rushing around trying to act to deal with it and not thinking that they have time to stop, observe and think.  They argue that this is because they think it is so serious. Ironically, all of their efforts to act suggest that they have not yet grasped the seriousness of the situation. When we realise something is serious, we realise that our normal activity can’t solve it and so we need to stop, observe and think. That’s why we need curiosity and readers of Faithroots will know that one of my frequent complaints has been that there has been an utter lack of curiosity throughout the Coronavirus crisis.

I have similar concerns about the Free School Meals campaign.  Seeing people praising MacDonalds for offering free or subsidised meals to children well and truly highlighted this for me.  It is worth rehearsing the reason why we have free school meals once more. In the second part of the 20th century there were concerns about whether or not children were getting the nutrition they needed. This was to some extent a recognition of the affects that the War and extended rationing were still having on society long after both stopped. School meals programmes  were set up to ensure that children got a hot nourishing meal at lunchtime.  These were subsidised. However even still, there were children on low incomes who might feel unable to access this and so their meals were provided free.  The aim of the programme was not to respond to poverty or to ensure that children did not suffer hunger at all, there was no attempt to provide breakfast or dinner and the programme did not run into the school holidays.

So, the first clue that we have is that the purpose of the meals was not about financial poverty. The second clue that we have is that organisations like MacDonalds are finding the wherewithal to feed children. This does suggest that the financial resources are out there in wider society.  The third clue that we have is about who is stepping in to provide the meals. Now, there may be a level of charitable motivation within an organisation like MacDonalds but they will also have done the sums.  What will their calculation be? Well, it will be that the cost of providing one of their meals isn’t that much against:

  • The publicity they are getting. This is exactly the type of advertising a multi-national like MacDonalds craves.
  • The families who will come in along with FSM children who will also want to purchase food
  • The reality that once in the building, the child is likely to want extra treats on top of the free meal given.

The next clue is to do with what has been happening with Free School Meals. I know of schools that used to prepare packed lunches for trips for their FSM children only to discover these went unclaimed -a complete waste of money. There are plenty of stories of schools delivering lunches during previous vacations during the pandemic only to be told these were not needed.

The next clue is to consider exactly how the pandemic has affected families. If a family qualified for free school meals prior to the pandemic because they were on benefits then those benefits will still be being paid. There will however be families who have seen their incomes reduced under furlough schemes or due to redundancies. That will have resulted in them coming under severe financial constraints.  However, I’m not sure, given the Government’s support measures that we should be expecting a huge effect on childhood food poverty from the pandemic yet. The families who are most likely to be suffering are those that were suffering before the pandemic. That’s not to say there are not some. A job loss or pay cut for someone who was living at the edge of their credit limit will be devastating. Indeed those families may not have made it on the Free School Meals list yet.

So, finally, we have one more clue and that is the food poverty is not a new problem.  We were very alert to the fact that there were families who depended on the free school meals during term time to the point where they really struggled when it came to holidays.  Those who struggled the most were asylum seekers and others in the immigration system. In fact, the hardest hit were those who did not have standard asylum cases and therefore  had no recourse to public funds. Those families were struggling before the pandemic and if we are honest most of us did not notice. They are struggling just as much now.  In fact, in so far as they did receive charitable support from others, the risk will become greater to them as people who tried to help before find that they are increasingly constrained financially.

These clues say to me that the rush to extend Free School Meals might be something we do in haste and repent at leisure. I hope from this that you will see that disagreeing with the approach does not necessarily mean that you are heartless or blind to the reality of poverty.  It does mean that some of us want to look at things differently hoping for a better long term outcome.

There are therefore three questions I would want to ask

  1. To what extent do we see people within society who are not able to maintain an income necessary to look after their families? Do we need to make changes to the way we run and resource the benefits system?
  2. Are all families able to fully access and join in with society regardless of income and background? Are there measure we need to take to remove those barriers?
  3. Are there other factors that affect families and mean that responsible decisions are not made about nutrition? If so, what can be done about this and who is responsible?

These are the questions I hope to see people seeking to answer.

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