CHURCHES around the country are providing food and activities to a growing number of children who would otherwise go hungry over the summer holidays without free school meals.
Foodbanks have already said that they fear this summer will be their busiest yet. The Trussell Trust said that demand throughout the year for food parcels has soared by 19 per cent, and that one third of food parcels are going to children. Extra pressure on families in the summer is likely to see demand for food parcels peak.
Andrew Forsey, who wrote the reports of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger, which focused on the extent and causes of hunger in the UK, said: “Churches are in the front line of the struggle to overcome hunger.
“Many churches and people in congregations and outside them — people of good will — are determined that no child will go hungry and go without the enjoyment that so many children expect from the summer holidays. There are many unique costs that come in over the holiday for families which just overwhelm parents.”
He is a trustee of the charity Feeding Britain, which is supporting community and church summer-holiday projects this summer.
“Whilst overcoming hunger is one objective, we want to make it fun and positive for children and parents. We want children to go back to school better fed, but also having learned something and having been kept active, putting them on a level playing-field with more fortunate children.”
Feeding Britain is urging the Government to fund a national programme of summer-holiday clubs to feed disadvantaged children. The Government has donated £9 million to holiday programmes this year, but the funding is concentrated in only a few areas, and Feeding Britain says that the issue is affecting people nationwide.
A report published at the end of July concluded that four million people were living in “deep poverty” in the UK, meaning that their income was 50 per cent below the official breadline. The report by the Social Metrics Commission said that seven million people were classed as being in persistent poverty, having been in poverty for two of the previous three years. Baroness Stroud, a Conservative peer, who chairs the commission, said: “It is time to look again at our approach to children, and to invest in our children as the future of our nation.”
In some areas of Middlesbrough, more than 70 per cent of children are on free school meals. Heather Black, a development worker at Together Middlesborough and Cleveland, a joint venture between the diocese of York and Church Urban Fund, is co-ordinating 36 summer holiday groups which will serve food to about 1500 children.
For the first time since it was set up five years ago, the Feast of Fun scheme is also running a club for children of secondary-school age, which will give them an evening meal.
Families are referred by social services, but also by schools; projects have reported calls from many schools with concerns about how families were going to cope this summer. Feast of Fun offers food, company, activities and also family trips out to places such as the North York Moors, which provide an opportunity for children to enjoy outdoor activities which their families could not ordinarily afford.
Ms Black said: “The scheme really makes a different to family life, and families tell us it really reduces stress and helps the mental health and well-being of parents and grandparents. There is a lot of family stress in low-income families. Parents worry whether their children will be somewhere safe over the summer holidays.”
She also works with Ageing Better Middlesborough to recruit older people to volunteer on the programme. “The schemes now have a family atmosphere: children and parents really value having older people there, and lonely older people have found a whole new lease of life through volunteering over the summer.”
In Stoke-on-Trent, Chell parish church runs Summer’s Kool, a holiday programme that feeds families but also provides free school uniforms to those in need.
The Vicar of Chell, the Revd Chris Coupe, said: “We do not call it holiday hunger, because of the stigma attached to the phrase; so we came up with Summer’s Kool, instead. We don’t just provide simply food, but crafts and activities and a meal. Tesco provide the food and cook it for us on site, and we have someone coming in to offer sports activities.”
Last year, the scheme fed 777 adults and children, and also supplied 444 meals to families who were not able to get to the site because they were caring for disabled children or relatives.
The need for its school-uniform bank has also grown: 134 complete uniforms were given to children in 2017, and 157 last year. This year, the uniform bank estimates that it will kit out at least 200 children with new uniforms.
“Within the first two hours of posting about our school-uniform bank on Facebook, we’d had 10,000 hits,” Mr Coupe said.
Families arrive at the parish through referrals from social services and also schools.
The growing demand for such schemes is evident in the geographical spread of summer-holiday projects. One scheme has had to step in and feed children in Surrey, even where both parents are in work.
Eleanor Pool, who runs the Loaves and Fishes project at St Paul’s, Addlestone, Surrey, said that there were high levels of need in the county: many families who were not eligible for state support were struggling to make ends meet. Last year, the project saw a 60-per-cent increase in families’ coming forward for free lunches on the previous year. This year, in the first week, 525 lunches were taken up: an increase of 32 per cent on the first week last year.
She said: “In schools, these families are referred to as JAM families: just about managing. These families are often two-parent families, but also single-parent families who earn enough money to exclude them from eligibility to any benefits such as housing benefit or free school lunches. However, the high costs of living, especially housing, in this area mean that food is often at the bottom of the list of priorities, and very often parents will go without in order to feed their children.
“The summer holidays are an extremely costly period for many of these families, who may not have family support-networks and are compelled to use expensive holiday-care schemes for their children, or take time off work. We especially did not want these families, whose expenses go up in the summer, to suffer the impact that the loss of free [school] lunches will have on the household.”
The project will continue until 30 August.