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18 June 2020updated 05 Oct 2023 8:38am

Holiday hunger isn’t just for one summer – children go without food every year

Why has it taken a pandemic to expose the annual crisis of children going hungry?

By Anoosh Chakelian

In the school holidays, “whole armies” of parents survive on just cereal and water with lemon, as they struggle to feed their children over the six-week break. This is the bleak reality of modern Britain revealed to a committee of MPs investigating holiday hunger in 2017.

Over the long summer, low-income families of the 1.3 million children on free school meals suffer a £30-£40 hit to their outgoings per week without the meals usually provided at school. On top of that, there’s the additional cost of childcare, plus all the extra outgoings for petrol, gas, electricity and activities that the holidays bring.

The coronavirus lockdown has intensified this annual crisis.

Only 136,000 of the 621,000 children who were attending free breakfast clubs pre-pandemic are receiving an alternative morning meal, and 31 per cent of children entitled to free school meals are still not receiving any substitute.

More than 200,000 children have had to skip meals because their family couldn’t access sufficient food during lockdown, according to a Food Foundation survey conducted by YouGov.

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The footballer Marcus Rashford drew attention to this problem, writing about his own childhood struggles with hunger in an open letter to MPs.

The government changed its position not to continue free school meals over the summer break, and will now provide six-week food vouchers to all children eligible for free school meals in England. This is an extension of a voucher scheme (which left many families for weeks without food when it began) that provides codes for parents to use in supermarkets.

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The question, however, is what about the summer holidays of the future?

Children have been going hungry long before a pandemic hit, particularly as child poverty levels have been rising and after ten years of cuts to schools and local authorities. The use of foodbanks now surges over the summer holidays, with the foodbank network, the Trussell Trust, indicating it had its “busiest summer ever” last July.

Nearly one in four parents with children 18 and under have skipped meals because of lack of money, according to polling in January 2018 by YouGov for the End Hunger UK coalition of charities.

What government pilots and charity schemes there are to fill in the gaps are poorly funded and unevenly distributed.

Over the years, holiday hunger has been the subject of countless reports, petitions, campaigns, politicians’ interventions and – until this week – a legal challenge from the Good Law Project.

As Imogen Richmond-Bishop, a campaign coordinator at the charity Sustain, puts it: “While I am pleased to see the commitment from our Prime Minister to provide support to children over the upcoming summer holidays as no child should have to go hungry, this has to be seen as part of a broader move towards ensuring children’s right to food 365 days a year.”