The vote in parliament against extending the scheme to help children in receipt of free school meals in England during school holidays prompted a public outcry, and rapid community mobilisation. Within days, a map of businesses, some already hit hard by the pandemic, was dense with pins, each representing restaurants, cafes, pubs, sports clubs and retailers offering free food for children during the holidays, supplementing provision offered by councils, schools and community organisations.
Marcus Rashford MBE, footballer and holiday hunger alleviation campaigner, was said to be “overwhelmed” by the community response.
Poverty has been further increasing in the UK due to Covid-19. As a frontline organisation delivering fresh food boxes to households experiencing hardship and fresh food to South Devon’s food banks, we at Food in Community had an existing recipe box scheme for families in school holidays and a ‘pay it forward’ meal delivery service in collaboration with a local bakery, so when the news broke, we scrambled to reinstate them.
Prior to Rashford’s most recent intervention, the number of fresh food boxes we delivered each week to struggling families was still almost double the numbers we delivered at the same time last year and food banks across the nation have experienced similarly increased levels of demand.
More than three million people, around one in ten people of working age, are currently claiming Universal Credit. The Job Retention Scheme is due to close imminently and the coming recession is forecast to be the worst on record.
The need to tackle holiday hunger comes at a time when voluntary organisations across the country have been running beyond capacity for months as we have responded to the crisis brought about by the pandemic. We are at a crossroads, where the capacity of food aid organisations could be dramatically further expanded and resulting in a society where providing food through charitable means becomes ever more embedded.
This has already happened in the US and Canada, and in the worst case is exploited by unethical food businesses, who according to Andy Fisher, author of Big Hunger, claim tax breaks for donating their waste food to food banks, pay less than a living wage to their staff, who then are forced to use the same food banks in order to feed their families.
Alternatively, we could push for a ‘money first’ approach, which puts cash into the pockets of families experiencing hardship and is potentially a more dignified solution, offering choice of whether to pay a bill, purchase food, or a child’s winter coat.
As articulated by the Independent Food Aid Network, a collective of independent food aid providers, “the problem that needs to be addressed is escalating poverty”, where lack of food is a symptom of inadequate household income.
Welcome though efforts to feed children living with poverty are, the financial stress experienced by people facing loss of income will not ultimately be resolved by providing free food. The question is whether this latest collective outpouring of goodwill can be harnessed to drive lasting positive change.