Children in the poverty in the UK are growing up hungry and facing social exclusion due to lack of money and food, according to a worrying report from poverty campaigners.
A shocking report from the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) calls for all UK children to have access to free school meals, as children from low-income households are facing the prospect of going hungry and becoming the victims of ridicule by their peers.
The book ‘Living Hand to Mouth?’, written by researchers from University College London and published by CPAG, finds that many school-age children are not being given enough food to meet their dietary needs.
It also finds that some children who are eligible for free school meals are restricted on the food options they can select, compared to other children from the same school who are not restricted by choice.
The daily allowance for free school meals is just £2 per child, meaning that these children are sometimes deprived of vital nutrients while others may decide to go without entirely, often due to shame and/or embarrassment.
The European-wide study included 51 UK children, who shared their own experiences of food at home, at school and in social settings. This included 45 low-income families from two deprived areas in South East England.
Around one quarter of children in the study went hungry at times, despite the best efforts and sacrifices of their families.
One child told researchers: “When I’m hungry I just can’t concentrate, it’s really, really hard for me to do that…so I just need to make my mind up and know that I will eat after five hours, seven hours when I get home.”
Just over half (23 of the 45) of low-income parents in the study ate too little food, went hungry, skipped meals and/or used food banks.
Children whose families had no recourse to public funds – usually because of unresolved immigration status – are not entitled to free school meals.
The study found that while some schools fund lunches for these children, others do not, with these children abandoned to go hungry during school hours.
“Sometimes you don’t have enough energy, you cannot cope in the classroom so you have to like try and rest a bit”, said Emmanuel, age 14.
“You just put your head on the table and you end up falling asleep in the classroom and you get in trouble for it.”
Whilst most children and parents included in the study were knowledgeable about dietary recommendations, many parents said they simply could not afford fresh fruit and vegetables.
“I need to be careful of how much starch and carbohydrates I’m putting into my son’s body, which doesn’t help because this is the food that I’m only able to buy because I can’t afford more of the fruits and vegetables that he needs”, said Shaniya from London.
Larger and lone parent families are at particular at risk of food poverty, says CPAG.
Chief Executive of CPAG Alison Garnham said: “The young people in this study make the case for universal free school meals more powerfully than anyone else could.
“Their hunger, their shame, their sense of being cut off from learning and social opportunities – all because parents can’t afford enough food – are appalling in a society that believes every child matters.
“Universal free school meals should be part of the solution but wider Government action is needed – urgently – to eradicate the poverty that underlies children’s hunger.
“As a minimum, free school meals should be restored for all families on universal credit.
“It is time to rebalance family budgets after years of austerity and rising child poverty. The priority should be lifting the freeze on working and non-working benefits so that they rise again with inflation.”
Co-author of the report Rebecca O’ Connell said: “In the UK, we are living in a period of deep political and economic uncertainty.
“Given the UK’s planned exit from the European Union, the implementation of further cuts to welfare benefits and rising inflation (including food prices), the plight of families who are struggling to feed themselves is unlikely to improve.
“Food poverty and its effects on children’s and young people’s physical and emotional wellbeing is a matter of grave concern.
“In the face of piecemeal responses and government neglect, the outlook is set to remain bleak. Radical change is needed.
“To tackle the food poverty of children and families, the government should make use of research on budget standards to ensure that wages and benefits, in combination, are adequate for a socially acceptable standard of living and eating, which recognises the fundamental role of food in health and social inclusion.”