How to help young people in food poverty (even if you have no money)

If you're angry over the Tories failure to give children free school meals, here's how you can do something about it this half-term.

by Charlotte Gush
27 October 2020, 12:59pm

Image via Twitter

In a move that would make even the cruelest Dickensian bad-guy blush, the Tories have out-Scrooged themselves by refusing to feed British children experiencing food poverty over the school holidays, and the nation is understandably outraged. But if you’re feeling frustrated and furious over their decision to abandon children supported in term-time with Free School Meals (FSM) as the second wave of a global pandemic bites, there are some things you can do about it, regardless of your own financial situation.

22-year-old England and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford successfully shamed the Tories into a U-turn over FSM earlier this year, resulting in the scheme continuing over the summer holidays. After Labour’s motion to extend FSM over half-term, Christmas and Easter was voted down by the Government last week, Marcus, who received FSM himself as a child, wrote in a statement: “A significant number of children are going to bed tonight not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter because of comments that have been made today.”

“I know that feeling,” he told MPs in a letter earlier this year. “I remember the sound of my mum crying herself to sleep to this day, having worked a 14-hour shift, unsure how she was going to make ends meet. That was my reality.” In his recent statement, the footballer expressed the urgency of the food poverty crisis in Britain: “This is not politics, this is humanity… We talk about the devastating impact of COVID-19 but, if projections are anything to go by, child food poverty has the potential to become the greatest pandemic the country has ever faced.”

The issue of food poverty in the UK is both serious and widespread. Recent data from the Food Foundation shows that 18% of UK 8-17 year olds (1.4 million children) experienced food insecurity this summer, in spite of the extension of FSM in that period. A more recent Childwise study found that 29% of children aged 8-17 (2.2 million children) are currently registered for FSM, with 42% of these (about 900k kids) being newly registered to the scheme. The effects of malnutrition on young people are “serious and long-lasting” according to a National Food Strategy report: children who experience food poverty are more likely to suffer from mental illness, and more likely to develop chronic disease (such as diabetes and cancer) as adults. Hungry school kids “struggle to concentrate, perform poorly, and have worse attendance records”. Ultimately, the report concludes, “food insecurity undermines any serious prospect of improving social equality”.

So far, so bleak. But there has been a silver lining to this overwhelmingly miserable affair. Where the Government has baulked at its responsibility to ensure the basic human needs of children are met, others have stepped in. Over the past few days, Marcus Rashford has been retweeting a constant stream of pledges from cafes, chippies, curry houses and more offering to feed people who are hungry, with some directed at kids who normally receive FSM and others offering to provide for anyone who needs it.

One project highlighted by Marcus is Emmie’s Kitchen, a charity started by 11-year-old Em­mie Narayn-Nicholas. Diagnosed with leukemia when she was eight, Em­mie spent months in a Manchester hospital. While she was there, Emmie noticed that, though her family were lucky to live nearby, others didn’t, and they struggled to eat well while supporting their sick children. With the help of her family, Emmie came up with a scheme to provide Friday night takeaways of hot food, and snack bags for in between. Marcus met Emmie when he presented her with a Pride of Britain Award, recognising her work to combat food poverty.

Not everyone can set up their own food charity, but there’s plenty we can do to support those leading the charge. Perhaps the easiest way to help is to sign Marcus Rashford’s petition to the Government, asking them to adopt the recommendations of the National Food Strategy (which the Government itself commissioned) to expand access to FSM and do more to alleviate holiday hunger. Tweeting the petition to his fans, Louis Tomlinson wrote, “what @MarcusRashford is doing is incredible. Please do take the time to sign if you live in the UK. Our children are our future.” Sharing the petition with family and friends, and speaking out about the issue on social media, can help to spread the word and build support around the campaign.

Beyond petition signing, campaigning groups are using direct action to send a message to the Government that starving children over the holidays will not be accepted. Grassroots Essex feminists All Rise Collective showed how it’s done when they unleashed an ingenious “empty plate protest” on their local Tory headquarters in Southend, after their MP voted against extending FSM. Even without an eye-catching stunt, you can put pressure on your local MP to support the extension of FSM by writing to them (find their details by using the FindYourMP checker on Parliament’s website).

The Food Foundation works with youth ambassadors to lobby the government on this issue. Dev Sharma, a 15-year-old ambassador from Leicester, explains: “My friends have warm food at school thanks to [FSM] but then at home have nothing. It absolutely sickens me how they only have two meals a day and I want to do all within my power as an ambassador to stand up for thousands of children around the UK.” In a list of ways to help shared with i-D, the Food Foundation suggests telling your MP why food poverty is an issue you care about, drawing on your own experiences if appropriate. Gathering together hundreds of pledges from cafes, restaurants, pubs and shops, the Food Foundation recently launched an interactive Kids Meals Map, enabling users to find places near them offering food in the absence of FSM. If you can, supporting these local businesses by buying food there yourself is a good way to bolster their finances (often already pandemic-depleted) so they can continue to provide free food to those in need.

Food bank charity the Trussell Trust has a postcode finder for food banks, where food donations — and volunteers – are almost always needed. The website also highlights fundraising activities and volunteering opportunities to help fight food poverty. If you speak another language, you can volunteer as a packing list translator, for example, “a vital role” helping people whose first language isn’t English to understand the types of food available and the contents of food parcels.

There are so many ways to help, but the issue of charity to alleviate food poverty is a thorny one. “Marcus Rashford’s campaigning has shone a light on the incredible compassion and generosity that exists in communities across our country,” says Garry Lemon, Trussell Trust director of policy and research. “But none of us should be forced to turn to charity to put food on the table. It isn’t right that this winter food banks are expecting to give out [six] emergency parcels every minute.” Clearly, long term solutions are needed.

When Channel 4 newsreader Krishnan Guru-Murthy tweeted, “I wonder how many children's meals could be paid for if everyone tweeting about child hunger in Britain could afford to donate whatever they spent on their own food in a day to the charity @MarcusRashford supports: @FareShareUK,” many were quick to point out that this isn’t how the system is supposed to work, with charity picking up the slack left by Government failure. As journalist Ash Sarker responded, “If only there was some kind of system where everyone put in money proportionate to what they earn, and then that money could be spent on things the public need. We could call it ‘tax’!”

The reality is that we, the public, are already paying into the Government pot of money that should be used to ensure no child goes hungry in the UK — the sixth richest country in the world. After a decade of Tory austerity, many local authorities have been squeezed to within an inch of their existence, with eight in 10 English councils reportedly at risk of bankruptcy. If the Government can’t afford to feed our most vulnerable children, they have failed. Next time you vote, be sure to make them pay for it.