WHILE the Government should have voted to extend free school-meal vouchers for this half-term and for future holidays, this would have been only a “sticking-plaster solution to a longer-term and deeper problem” of child poverty, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, has said.
Speaking on Monday, he applauded as “heart-warming and encouraging” the rallying of churches, businesses, charities, and individuals to support disadvantaged families during the half-term break this week, after MPs voted against the Labour motion to extend free school-meal vouchers last Friday.
But Bishop Butler said: “I do not believe they should have had to do this, and hope that the Government will change its mind on the provision of free school-meal vouchers over the Christmas and Easter holidays.
“However, this is a sticking-plaster solution to a longer-term and deeper problem — here, the Government are right. Child poverty, which is what leads to the hunger, is a much broader problem that requires significant long-term government action.”
He suggested a “permanent uprating” of Universal Credit in line with the £20-per-week increase already in place; raising the national minimum wage to the “real living wage”, to bypass benefits; and “a fundamental shift in thinking and policy-making that puts children at the heart of government decision-making rather than tending to leave them to the edge of decision-making. We can and must do something to correct this injustice.”
New research from the Child Poverty Action Group suggests that the £20 per week increase in Universal Credit and working tax credits has only just enabled some low-paid working families with full-time jobs to get close to — or just above — a minimum acceptable standard of living.
Its report, The Cost of a Child in 2020, calls for the increase to be made permanent. In 2020, it says, the overall cost of a child up to age 18 years (including rent, council tax, and child care) was £152,747 for couples (up 5.5 per cent since 2012), and £185,413 for lone parents (up 19.6 per cent since 2012).
The Commons vote was inspired by the England and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford, who, in June, persuaded the Government to provide food vouchers during the school summer holidays to children who were eligible for free school meals (News, 19 June). He renewed his campaign for the October half-term; his latest petition has accrued more than one million signatures.
The motion was defeated 322 to 261 in the House of Commons, however, sparking outcry from campaigners, and pledges of food and assistance from churches, businesses, and other organisations to meet the immediate need of families who are struggling to feed children during the half-term.
The Government has argued that welfare support has increased.
The Archbishop of Canterbury said on Friday: “Our schools and parishes are stepping in to help disadvantaged children across England. Churches across England will be providing free meals to children during the half-term holiday.”
An ordinand at St Paul’s, Shurdington, Catherine Milsom, said that she was “overwhelmed” by the response to her suggestion of entering into partnership with a supermarket and businesses to provide food to children in need in the area.
Volunteers at the church, which is part of the Greenway Benefice, in the diocese of Gloucester, have worked with Shurdington C of E Primary School to identify 53 children who are to received food parcels this week.
The Vicar, the Revd Susan Cooke, said: “Everyone got behind this project very quickly, and we have been delighted and overwhelmed by the generosity of the churches, the community, individuals, and businesses. They all want to help the families of the children who attend the school, and families in the village whose children go to other schools.”
In the diocese of York, St Thomas’s, Brambles Farm, in Thorntree, Middlesbrough, is handing out fruit and vegetable packs to 68 families of 340 children. The project is being funded by Together Middlesbrough and Cleveland, a joint venture between the diocese and the Church Urban Fund. On Wednesday, a craft club at St Thomas’s, at which a packed lunch is included, is being organised for 20 children, with take-home meals for their siblings.
Many churches already run foodbanks; others run cafés that are offering free food for children this week, “no questions asked”. Hundreds of local and national food businesses, borough councils, and community groups have also offered free meals or vouchers for children, while individuals, celebrities, and groups, including 2200 paediatricians, have called for a government U-turn.
Church leaders in Cornwall welcomed the council’s decision to fund free school meals for needy children during future holidays, but they called on the Government to ensure that this would not lead to funding cuts for other services.
In a joint letter on Monday, the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen; the Bishop of St Germans, the Rt Revd Hugh Nelson; and the chairman of the Cornwall Methodist District, the Revd Steve Wild, write: “Over the past six months, many of the existing fragilities in society have been exposed and aggravated, including the shocking levels of hunger and poverty in our country.
“The pandemic has made it much worse, but the problem was already there. And over the past few weeks in particular, we have all had to face up to the fact that there are children in our communities who regularly go to bed hungry. We are one of the richest countries in the world, and yet there are children without enough to eat.”
No matter how complex the issues and policy decisions, this is unacceptable, they write. The Church leaders agree with Bishop Butler, however, that free meals are not the “ultimate solution”.
“The real problem is that too many people are caught in poverty and that we, society as a whole, have come to accept the unacceptable. And we know that this longer-term challenge isn’t just a question for politicians; it’s for all of us. We all share the responsibility for building the kind of society that we want to live in.”
The Children’s Society highlighted the results of a survey last month of 1002 parents of children aged five to 16. The survey had asked them how much they were spending on food each week for their eldest school-age child.
Seventy-one per cent of those surveyed said that their children were not receiving free school meals. Forty-two per cent of parents who said that they were struggling to make ends meet had spent less on food for their families owing to the lack of free school meals. The parents surveyed said that the cost of school meals, combining both lunch and breakfast, could add up to £5.10 per day. This meant that some families could need to spend £1000 on feeding each child each year.
The chief executive of the Children’s Society, Mark Russell, said that free school meals were sometimes the only healthy meal that disadvantaged children would have in a day. “No one likes the idea of a child going hungry, but we know that right now there are children across the country who are. We also know that the pandemic has only made the situation worse. . .
“Extending free school meals to all families on Universal Credit would make a huge difference. Not only would it relieve some of the immense pressure low-income families face to feed their children; it would help the children themselves. For many disadvantaged pupils, free school meals provide the only healthy, nutritious meal they get each day.
“The Government has the power to make this change. We urge them to act now, to help struggling families and ensure no child is facing the prospect of trying to learn on an empty stomach.”
On Monday, the Labour Party was pushing for a second vote in the Commons, and Conservative MPs who voted in favour of the motion said that they would be lobbying for a reversal of the decision before Christmas.
Responding to the backlash, the Prime Minister said on Monday: “I totally understand the issue of holiday hunger. The debate is, how do you deal with it.” He said that the Government was “very proud” of the support that it had already given through Universal Credit and the £63 million paid to councils in July to help people struggling to afford food and essentials. It later emerged that this sum had already been spent.
“Five million meals” during pandemic. Churches in the UK have provided five million free meals a month to key workers, vulnerable families, and self-shielding individuals since the pandemic took hold, a new report, The Church in Lockdown, estimates. It was published by the cross-denominational charity, YourNeighbour, on Monday.
Separately, YourNeighbour has provided 2.8 million meals from its own Lockdown Hunger partnership.
The five-million figure is based on data and case studies from partner churches, foodbanks, and charities, as well as a survey from the Evangelical Alliance in which 90 per cent of the 900 member churches that responded reported providing some form of community support to the vulnerable, including foodbanks and helplines.
YourNeighbour was founded in March to support communities in need during the pandemic. Since then, more than 1100 churches and Christian charity partners have joined its network, including the Church of England, the Salvation Army, Baptists Together, Assemblies of God, Vineyard, and the Methodist Church. Its own helpline had taken 1300 calls since March, the report states.
The director of YourNeighbour, Tim Pikington, said: “As well as churches providing what we estimate to be more than five million meals per month to those in need, they have also played a vital role in providing [for] emotional and spiritual needs through pastoral and bereavement support, domestic-violence interventions, and mentoring, among others.”
Read comment on the story here
Podcast: The Revd Lizzi Green on the reality of child food poverty