Today MPs from across the political divide will support a Ten Minute Rule Bill introduced by the MP Emma Lewell Buck. The School Breakfast Bill seeks to provide schools in disadvantaged areas with the support required to give a free, healthy school breakfast to children. It would build on the existing National School Breakfast Programme run by Magic Breakfast and Family Action.
The Bill though is unlikely to become law because it doesn’t have the backing of the Government. Despite the evidence being clear – that providing school breakfasts is an important way of tackling classroom hunger – there are still thousands of children who are starting school hungry. Food poverty remains a blight, and sadly the problem looks likely to worsen as the economic consequences of the coronavirus crisis becomes more acute.
There were already around 2 million children aged 0-14 living in food insecurity and 1.4m children were eligible for free school meals – 17% of children in school – at the beginning of this year, even before the pandemic. The last six months will have had a substantial impact on the employment and incomes of households and, by extension children. It has been estimated that median household income has fallen by 4.5% between May 2019 and May 2020, the largest yearly fall since the 1970s. This is driven by the loss of jobs, reduction in hours and shifts onto furloughed wages (which only replaced 80% of pre-crisis wages).
Understanding of how children have been impacted is so far limited but early estimates suggest 300,000 children have been pushed into poverty by the disruptive effects of lockdown on unemployment.
Reduced family incomes and restrictions on movement increase food insecurity for children. The Trussell Trust reported an 89% increase in need for emergency food parcels in April 2020 compared to the same month last year and over the summer 350,000 children in England were living in a family where someone had been forced to skip a meal. 249,000 children were living in families that had accessed foodbanks.
Free School Meals provide food directly to children and the numbers requiring them is likely to increase. Yesterday, the Food Foundation released a survey suggesting that hundreds of thousands of children have recently registered for Free School Meals. At a time of such uncertainty and anxiety, those on very low incomes should know that their children are receiving at least one hot meal during the day.
I am hearing concerns though about the quality of Free School Meals during the current crisis. The covid safety restrictions in schools have meant many are no longer providing hot school dinners. For those children for whom a school dinner can be the only hot meal of the day, this is a real blow.
We know too that most schools have had to cut the length of the lunch break, so some children do not even have time to have a proper meal at lunchtime. Schools are having to move mountains to keep schools safe and open, so there are reasons why school lunchtime has changed, but the fact is there will be many children who rely on a hot school lunch who are no longer receiving one.
It was fantastic to see Marcus Rashford awarded an honour this week. His campaigning is changing lives for the better and I support him every step of the way. However, the question remains: why is a country as prosperous as ours scrimping when it comes to helping children living in poverty? I want to see an overarching strategy to tackle child poverty, including food poverty. The Government could start by backing today’s Bill. It could go further by making a long-term commitment to providing Free School Meals during the holidays. The Chancellor should also preserve the changes that we know have lifted children out of poverty over the last 6 months: the £20 a week uplift in Universal Credit. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that allowing it to expire, as it is intended to in April 2021, would move 300,000 children into poverty directly.
I also want to see an extra uplift in Universal Credit for families with children of £10 per child, as well as an end to the two child limit and tackling the five week UC wait. An increase in the value of Healthy Start vouchers would also make a real difference.
All governments face choices, and there are many difficult decisions to be made, but lifting children out of poverty and eliminating child hunger is a moral imperative for any administration. A national drive to cure the ill of food poverty could transform the life chances of millions of children.