It was reported last week that Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey has commissioned a £200,000 study to explore the impacts of austerity. That money could be better spent on something useful to help the poorest in society. If ministers want to understand more about the impacts of austerity, all they need to do is visit some foodbanks and hear about the spike in demand in the summer holidays, or visit holiday hunger projects and meet the volunteers putting vital food on the table for children and young people.
Holiday hunger is a national crisis. This week I visited the St Matthews Big Local holiday lunch project in Leicester. Run by local charity Action Homeless, volunteers expected to provide 90 meals for children and young people on the day I visited – in the end, they served up 160. A community centre had become a makeshift dining room. Volunteers were somehow cooking those 90 meals using a normal, domestic four-ring electric cooker, a microwave, and a hot food storage unit donated by De Montfort University.
This project operates on Wednesdays and a neighbouring community project on the estate provides meals on Mondays and Tuesdays. Children and parents can collect a free bag of groceries to help get them through the end of the week and the weekend.
On the menu that day was fish fingers, potatoes and baked beans. The ten volunteers I met had been hard at work since 8am, four hours before the doors opened. Demand is double what the project leader had expected. He told me that the holiday hunger project needed so much volunteer time and resources that other community priorities and initiatives are on hold. This in turn is frustrating, as it means that community volunteers who have spent all year trying to secure funding must now watch their projects be sidelined. But children have to be fed.
When schools go back, the St Matthews Big Local lunch club will close its doors, as will invaluable holiday hunger programmes across the country.
Meanwhile, Brexit negotiations will start again.
Holiday hunger projects could not be further away from the elegant menus enjoyed by Theresa May when she sits down with EU leaders. However, make no mistake about it: the consequences of the whatever deal emerges absolutely matters to those on Britain’s breadline and their ability to put food on the table.
A bad Brexit deal, or no deal, would have serious consequences for food prices and supply. Frictionless trade is essential for our food supply – 30 per cent of our food is imported from the EU. Evidence to a House of Lords committee inquiry on Brexit and food warned that prices of everyday staples could increase dramatically in the event of no free trade deal with the EU being agreed: vegetable prices could go up by four per cent, fruit prices by three per cent and those of bread and cereals by almost two per cent. Trading on World Trade Organisation schedules could see the price of cheese rise by 20 per cent.
Food Standards Agency research shows that one in five households are experiencing, or are close to, food insecurity. Higher prices at the checkout would push more below the breadline. Those with the financial headroom in their household budgets can adapt, but those struggling to get by will be unable to. That will mean rising levels of food poverty and food insecurity. It will mean people buying cheaper, poorer quality food and longer queues at foodbanks and holiday hunger projects. Put simply, higher food bills will push many families to the brink.
After successive summers of holiday hunger slowly rising up the political agenda, at least the government now recognises there is a problem. This year it committed £2m funding towards “testing the effectiveness of interventions” and “looking at the take up of provision”. Sticking plaster solutions, gimmicky funds from the Department for Education and Esther McVey’s research study won’t help the kids at holiday hunger projects this summer. They need long term, serious solutions.
Tory austerity has been a disaster for Britain – we didn’t talk about holiday hunger five years ago. Adding a bad Brexit deal to the mix would be catastrophic for the poorest in society. When ministers get back round the cabinet table, it’s the children and young people in St Matthews and at holiday hunger projects they need to think about. For those children, Brexit isn’t some political game: it’s about whether there will be food on the table.
Rory Palmer is Labour MEP for the East Midlands. He tweets @Rory_Palmer