Whilst the Brexit melodrama continues to absorb the collective attention of parliament and the media, nearly 17,000 of Southampton’s children – 36% – are living in poverty. To put this into context, a class of 30 at a local school in my ward will see 11 children suffering from the scourge of poverty.
Southampton’s child hunger tragedy is part of a national crisis. A few months ago, the Child Poverty Action Group categorically showed that child poverty continues to climb across the UK. Today, there are 4.1 million children living in poverty, but by 2022 another million will be added to this shameful figure.
This rise has been a political choice by successive Tory governments who’ve pushed more people into poverty and those already there to destitution. Contrast this with the legacy of the last Labour government which not only passed the Child Poverty Act and set ambitious targets for 2020, but took 900,000 children out of poverty. Politics is about the choices we make, and the Tories chose to redefine poverty rather than work to abolish it.
Growing up in a council flat, I was taught and still believe that if you work hard and apply yourself then you can succeed and should have a decent standard of living. But shockingly, two-thirds of families in food poverty are working households. When one of the richest and greatest countries will not adequately feed our future, it’s clear that something has gone wrong. Everyone deserves the chance to fulfil their potential.
That is why our Labour council in Southampton has just launched the Feed the Future programme, with the ambition to abolish child hunger in our city by 2025. It starts with the distribution of free fruit and yoghurt in 10 schools across the city. Fresh fruit and yoghurts will be provided to all primary school children who want them, ensuring no stigma or social pressure.
Working with FareShare, the council will be diverting surplus food from supermarket waste bins to our schools – helping to tackle our climate breakdown in the process. The scheme will ensure that every child can access fresh fruit, goes through the school day with the option of healthy food and improves their nutrition.
The summer holidays might already be a memory. For most, they are a time of new experiences, quality family time and fun in the sun. But for too many, they are also a time of misery and missed meals. Schools provide more than an education: they are now relied upon to help provide basic sustenance to our children. Holiday hunger received a renewed focus this year and numerous schools – including two in Southampton – kept their kitchens opened throughout the holidays to help feed thousands of families.
But it is not just the school holidays where problems exist and many of our children are turning up to school hungry. Free school meals are a lifeline for these families, but not all are registered and it’s unacceptable to ask for our children to wait up to 10 hours between meals. On the frontline of this epidemic, teachers have taken to stocking snacks in their desks to give out to pupils to tide them over until lunchtime.
This is more serious than an occasional rumbling belly or being ‘hangry’. A child who is regularly hungry has a lower immune system, is worse behaved and learns less. Falling behind your peers ultimately entrenches disadvantage and prevents children from escaping poverty when they become adults. Across the country, numerous charities, churches, schools and councils have stepped up to fight this injustice and provide a range of services from food parcels to training courses.
One of the organisations taking a lead on this issue is City Catering. Formed by former Southampton City Council staff to become the UK’s first charitable catering company – they are passionate about tackling this scourge. This summer, they held the first set of holiday hunger clubs where they invited families to come together, receive a meal, learn about nutritional cooking and take part in fun activities. In Valentine and Mansbridge primary schools, 1,800 meals were given out during the summer holidays.
Later this month, they’ll be forming the Southampton holiday provisions steering group, which the council will be part of. This work is to be commended, but to ensure that there’s a robust and enduring safeguard against hunger, it requires national and local government to act.
Feed the Future is the start of the journey, but our goal is clear, no child should fear the bell signalling the start of the holidays or worry where their next meal is coming from. Our council – with others – will work to remove that unfair burden from all our children.