Hidden hunger and the stigma of poverty

Food poverty isn’t easy to talk about but free school meals are a vital safety net for low-income families, writes Becky Blench.

Food poverty isn’t easy to talk about and often remains hidden. Who wants to admit that they can’t feed their family? Or say that this was their experience growing up?  

Being poor can create a toxic shame, especially as in our culture we associate wealth with intelligence and aspiration, but poverty is a systemic problem that needs tackling at the roots. The new National Food Strategy shines a light onto this, stating that “eating well in childhood is the very foundation stone of equality of opportunity”.  Not being hungry at school means you can concentrate on lessons, have better physical and mental health, better attendance, and different outcomes.

As we face another recession, it is vital that the government looks at this key issue. During the early 80s recession of Thatcher’s Britain, things weren’t good for many hardworking families including my own, and poverty was rife.

Endless marmite or baked beans on toast didn’t seem like going without when I was little. I didn’t understand that my lovely mum said “I’m not hungry, you have it” or “I’ll get mine later” more than she should because there wasn’t any other food in the house. I was lucky enough that I never went hungry and was also able to have free school meals, but I know that for too many children then and now that is not the case. 

Daisy, who is quoted in the National Food Strategy and also grew up in a deprived area, said: “The only reason I’m any different is because my mum’s a hippy and I know how to cook.” My own resourceful mum went veggie and so fed us all cheaply on lentils, veg and simple home-cooked meals. 

We need to break up fast food culture with proper practical skills so children who haven’t had this learn to cook healthy meals from scratch. School lunches provide a “nutritional safety net”, as the report rightly says, and expanding good quality free school meals, breakfast clubs and holiday voucher programmes is essential.  

EMpty bowl
Food poverty is a reality for millions of children in the UK.

I was so proud when Marcus Rashford spoke out this summer to try and help kids access food during the holidays. We need to remove the stigma attached to poverty and stand up for families of all shapes and sizes for whom this is an issue to ensure every child has access to healthy food.

Our life circumstances can change – for better or for worse, slowly or suddenly, and it is easy to see those in food poverty as being ‘other’; something that would never happen to you. I was lucky – I attended school enough to finish my exams, had a university education and different life prospects as a result. Without the free school meals, shoes and uniform, I have no doubt that this would not have been possible. 

3 Comments

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  1. I worked in a few schools where there were some students who were classed as deprived. We had marvellous cooks in the kitchens and excellent home ec teachers who made it their goal to feed students and to teach them about good cheap food. I have great admiration for these people. But as ever funding was limited. Hopefully some of the children went away with some cooking skills in order to make the most of their money for food..
    We shouldn’t have food poverty in this country – it’s another case of unequal sharing but that’s a further fight . I was pleased to see that the first part of the National Food strategy Pointed out that food poverty was a real issue for equality. I am hopeful but we still need to keep pushing our politicians to take on board and work on the recommendations.

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    1. The National Food strategy does feel so needed, even in just acknowledging the huge amount of food poverty that is hidden in a wealthy western country. Let’s hope the recommendations are fully implemented to create greater equality from early years onward.

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  2. Some of the problems stem from the removal of practical cooking skills for children during the Thatcher era and factory produced food brought into school kitchens with reduction of skill in school cooks. Add to that job losses in all sectors especially in the North and now everywhere and of course the virus. Lets hope that the National Food strategy considers all factors which effect our nation.

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