“K” IS eight years old. Today, her teacher found her slipping her school-provided breakfast into her bag “for later”. She doesn’t always get to eat dinner at home. She is far from the only one.
Many years ago, I was like K. I am all too aware of the effects of childhood poverty. Both my parents worked, but had to stop, owing to disability.
I was in junior school the first time that my family was threatened with eviction. I was convinced that it meant that we would be living on the streets, and ran around our flat making sure that I’d packed extra teddies and jumpers in my school bag for me and my siblings. I didn’t eat breakfast for most of secondary school. At first, I convinced myself that eating that early made me feel ill. Later, because I wasn’t used to it, that became reality.
Years later, this is still the reality for children across the country. I am now an assistant curate in Crawley, a town in West Sussex very close to Gatwick Airport. Perhaps one of the hardest parts of my curacy so far has been supporting teachers worried about school shutdowns — not for their own sakes, but because they knew that their pupils would go hungry.
This town has been massively affected by the pandemic, because so many jobs rely on the aviation industry, and we know that there are families in desperate need. They are supported by, and often fed by, schools, as well as our fantastic youth service; but there just isn’t enough to go around.
THE Children’s Society estimates that there are approximately four million children living in poverty in the UK, and that number is set to rise as a result of the pandemic. That is four million children whose parents cannot afford basics that many of us take for granted — food, heating, adequate clothing — although we live in one of the world’s richest economies. A huge number of these children live in families with at least one working adult — and yet they still face the ongoing emotional, physical, and spiritual effects of poverty.
Marcus Rashford, a remarkable footballer who plays for England and Manchester United, has recently gained well-deserved fame for his campaign to extend the provision of free school meals, currently offered to some of these children, to cover the school holidays (News, 16 June). While this was eventually approved for the summer holidays, MPs recently turned down an opportunity to extend it to the autumn half-term and Christmas holidays.
Many have argued that the extension of free school meals to the holidays can only ever be a “sticking plaster”, to quote the MP Ben Bradley. There are systemic issues of inequality, access to opportunities, racism, and other social issues at play here, which are not being addressed.
Universal Credit is plagued with serious administrative delays on top of a compulsory waiting period, so that new recipients are left for several weeks with no money coming in. Councils are being expected to provide support when the money offered is unrealistic in the light of huge and longstanding funding cuts.
Free school meals in the school holidays will not solve child poverty. They will, however, provide reassurance to families, free money for paying bills, and enable children to learn well: their need to eat does not simply vanish in the school holidays.
We are called both to protest against the injustices of child hunger and to act to alleviate it. Jesus both challenged authorities and fed the five thousand, meeting people at their point of greatest need. Jesus was concerned with the physical and the spiritual needs of those he came across. The act of providing food for the hungry — and perhaps especially for hungry children — is a holy one. “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2.15-16).
WHAT can we do to support families in poverty?
First, businesses around the country have signed up to provide food for children in need during the half term. If one of them is in your area, consider supporting them.
Second, write to your MP, explaining why this is important.
Third, so many people in poverty feel disempowered by the experience. If you haven’t experienced it, why not read one of the many articles published by people who have?
Fourth, pray for good, wise governance, and for compassion and justice, for members of Government as they make decisions, and for all those in poverty.
The body of Christ must do all that it can to end food poverty and to promote the voices and the interests of the least powerful. Jesus calls us to nothing less.
The Revd Lizzi Green is Assistant Curate of Gossops Green and Bewbush, in the diocese of Chichester.
Listen to an interview with Lizzi Green on the Church Times Podcast.