Growing up in Manchester in the ’80s was hard. Poverty was rife on my council estate, and there was real poverty in my house. Sometimes I went without food. On those occasions, I would pester my mates to let me go round theirs for tea.
During the week, the only guaranteed hot meal my friends and I would get was at school. I often went to school without breakfast, so I’d be starving by the time we got to the school gates. This is what life was like for many working-class kids.
It makes me wonder what Boris Johnson would’ve thought of people like me back then. After all, I was a working-class single mum in my teens – the kind of parent he described as raising “ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate children”. But that’s not my son, or the children of anyone I know. Johnson’s comments show nothing but contempt for women and working-class people.
These memories of food insecurity came back to me last year. I read that malnourished children were filling their pockets with food from the school canteen to take home because they were hungry. One teacher even said their pupils had ‘grey skin’. Food insecurity shouldn’t be happening anywhere, let alone in one of the richest countries in the world. It isn’t just a scandal, it’s immoral.
I’ve been haunted by these reports ever since. I left school 22 years ago, and children are still being found in that same situation. It’s what the United Nations called the “tragic social consequences” of Tory-led policy.
Every child should have the right to the best possible health, and that includes nutritious food, yet there are currently 2.5 million children in hungry households. The Trussell Trust has revealed that between April and September this year, over 300,000 food parcels have been given to children.
Food insecurity blights a kid’s life. It can lead to mental health problems and damage physical health, as the Children’s Future Food Inquiry has found. And it affects school attendance, as a well as a child’s ability to learn when they are in class. It’s a real social harm. With over four million children living in poverty, there’s a moral urgency to eliminate this scourge from our society and our schools.
Labour is the only party that will do this. We’re proposing to ‘poverty proof’ our schools. Here’s how: we’ll expand the provision of free, healthy breakfasts to all primary schools, and we’ll also pilot free breakfasts in secondary schools. We’ll introduce universal free school lunches for primary school kids, and give free meals to secondary school pupils whose parents receive Universal Credit, saving them £437 a year per child.
Healthy breakfasts for primary school children is a proven way to improve kids’ health and their education, as well as saving money for their families. But we know there are other costs that parents are concerned about. Summer holidays can be a time of real financial stress, which is why we will pilot opening schools over summer, with healthy food and activities for kids.
That stress is also felt when it comes to buying school uniforms. Alarmingly, a million children have parents who were pushed in to debt due to school uniform costs according to the Children’s Society. This has led to young people going to school in uniforms that don’t fit, or even being sent home for wearing the wrong uniform. This is a humiliation that no child deserves.
The Tories knew this was a problem. In 2015, they promised to make uniforms affordable, but they’ve sat on their hands for years. Labour will sort out this mess. We’ve pledged to tackle the costs of uniforms, and we’ll do this by capping costs, as well as restoring grants to help working families.
The extent of child poverty in our country is a damning indictment of the Tories. But there is an alternative. The choice we face at this election could not be clearer.