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23 December 2015

For too many families, Christmas is a time of hunger

In Wrexham, something is being done about the problem - but it needs support from the government to go further. 

By Ian Lucas

Before David Cameron became Prime Minister, food banks were rare. Now their presence is a standard aspect of our country today.

In my own community of Wrexham, our food bank opened in 2012. Now, in addition, we know that school holidays mean real hunger for some of our children. This isn’t just a seasonal problem around Christmas – it happens whenever schools close for holidays. The provision which is made in schools to help provide children with food is – by definition – not there once school doors close for the holidays.

There has been a growing recognition of the problem of holiday hunger across the UK in recent months – an All-Party Parliamentary Group has been established and produced a report which can be seen here. To date, the problem has not been recognised, let alone addressed, by the Tory Government.

One of the All Party’s Group’s suggestions is to share work and ideas, and with that in mind, I wanted to set out the work that we have carried out in Wrexham.

To address the problem of Holiday Hunger which is not being recognise or addressed by our Prime Minister, Wrexham volunteers acted.

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Wrexham’s project came together when an experienced community worker observed the existence of the problem locally around two years ago. As the UK Government appeared oblivious to the problem, there was no structure in place to help make sure that the many children who receive up to two school meals per day during term time were catered for in the school holidays. These children were going without food, and Wrexham volunteers wanted to change that.

The project began slowly at first – I approached breakfast cereal manufacturers Kelloggs, who have a factory in Wrexham, and asked if there was anything they could do to help. They provided some cereal bars and volunteers helped to distribute them.

From there, the project developed. Volunteers from churches, charities and community organisations provided food and activities once more at Christmas, applying lessons learned in earlier projects to make the scheme more effective. By the Easter holidays this year, a clear approach to a pressing issue was agreed.

Rather than set up different community schemes with food, we would provide food to existing holiday projects.

Led by Sarah Wheat, a Church Worker for the St Asapah Diocese, we worked to set up a scheme where a packed lunch – a simple filled roll, fruit, raisins and a snack such as a scone – was prepared at a local church. These lunches were then sent out to play schemes in the area. This formula proved such a hit that it was repeated throughout the summer holidays. A local school also opened to give children an opportunity to prepare a simple meal and then sit down, eat and enjoy it. 

This Christmas, hot, chunky soup will be made by volunteers and again distributed to local play schemes.

Throughout this year’s summer holidays, the scheme provided thousands of meals in Wrexham and will do so again this Christmas.

From its small scale beginnings, more and more groups have got involved, led by Sarah and her Church in Wales unit. Wrexham council staff volunteered over the most recent summer holidays; 51 volunteers in all gave their help to the project; local faith groups, community groups and other organisations all pitched in in some way. The enthusiasm and commitment of Church in Wales employees went way beyond their brief. Donations and grants came from the Transformation Fund from the Dioceses of St Asaph in North Wales, Kellogg’s, Tesco and the Salvation Army.

Individuals, businesses and community organisations of different types have come together to take practical steps to address a problem affecting the Wrexham community.

What was most important about the scheme was that it was effective. Children were fed, and their behaviour was improved by having a regular, nourishing meal available. Some, who were convinced they did not like fruit, found by the end of the summer holidays, that, in fact, they did. Groups and individuals bonded over meals and good healthy food was discovered by some children for the first time.

The project provided a chance to simply sit and eat together – a very valuable moment for some.  A report back from one play scheme said: “staff on the playground specifically wanted it stated that instances of bad behaviour were very much the exception rather than the norm and they put this fact largely down to the food available during the course of the day.”

The project has proved to be a success here in Wrexham and is doing good work locally. Volunteers believe that their work has many lessons that could be learnt by other groups doing similar work across the country.

Wrexham’s success has addressed the immediate issue in the town, and by the hard work of many volunteers, helped provide food where, before, there was hunger.

We now need to take that work on across the country. The All-Party Group suggest that the Government: “fund the development of resources and training for organisations to deliver and support new and existing holiday provision programmes; research into the scale of child hunger in the UK and its effects on learning; and develop policy to support holiday provision programmes that include meals and enrichment activities.”

The challenge for David Cameron now is to take the work being done in places like Wrexham – set up by volunteers themselves in response to a problem they identified in their own community – and to think about how to apply it across the country, without cutting across others’ work. Our Prime Minister also needs to reflect on why it is that, under his Government, these projects are necessary when prior to his Premiership, they were not.

After Christmas, it will be our duty to put a system in place in 2016 to confront the real problem of holiday hunger across the UK. Government should be playing a central part in that important task.

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