Fiona Twycross: Summer holidays can be a hungry time for many London children

Fiona Twycross: Summer holidays can be a hungry time for many London children

Whether or not they have school aged children, it can’t have escaped many Londoners’ notice that the school holidays are now underway. On public transport, carers, parents and grandparents – from home and abroad – are taking children into Central London to make the most of what our wonderful city has to offer.

However, the sad fact is that for many of our families the long summer break puts additional pressure on already strained finances, with some even struggling to put food on the table. The shameful truth is that in London, this summer, children will go hungry and will miss out – not only on vital nutrition, but also on the “food for the brain” that day trips and holidays offer.

Summer holidays have always posed certain challenges in terms of attainment and development for children from low-income families, who face the so-called “summer learning loss”. Various initiatives – from the summer reading challenge to the extended schools scheme, introduced in 2005 – have sought to address this. Delivery of these sorts of enrichment programmes has become more challenging in the face of government cuts. The gap that’s left is plugged by a combination of parental, local government and third sector interventions.

Alongside the learning loss, many children from low-income households – particularly those entitled to free school meals – get a double whammy as they face six weeks without a nutritious meal at lunchtime.

The link between food needs and academic achievement during term time is well known and well documented nationally. There’s an attainment gap at GCSE level between those who are eligible for free school meals and those who aren’t for every ethnic group in England, with the starkest difference between Caribbean and White British pupils. Holiday hunger isn’t new, but it is only in the last few years that it has been highlighted in the media and discussed among policy makers as an issue that needs to be resolved. There is a need for more research on the subject.

The loss of free school meals out of term time is a huge factor, adding £30-40 per week to a parent or carer’s food bills for every child. In some cases, this is money that simply isn’t available, and a third of all adults have skipped meals in order to save money and allow their children to eat. In some families, the lack of additional money means children themselves going without, with reports of pupils returning in September thinner and less well than when they broke up.

Hungry children don’t learn effectively, and they fall behind. Studies have shown that it can take up to six weeks after the summer break for those from the poorest backgrounds to readjust after the holidays. The impact of the break is more pronounced still for children with disabilities, and those for whom English is a second language.

The signs of food poverty are all around us, not least in the precipitous rise in foodbank use. This is an issue that I’ve long campaigned on and, thanks to a City Hall study, we now know the scale of the problem in the capital. Indeed, around two million Londoners are struggling to afford adequate food.

Even where central government continues to offer help, it’s often badly implemented and poorly publicised. The means-tested healthy start voucher scheme, introduced in 2006, is failing to reach 47% of eligible London families, with figures as low as 35% in some boroughs.

There are some City Hall and local government-led initiatives which can help plug the gap created by some of the cuts from over a decade of austerity.

Take Kitchen Social for instance, a recipient of £343,000 from the Mayor’s Fund for London, which supports community groups to provide meals for kids during the holidays and helps develop scale, skills and facilities. Kitchen Social has engaged 110 community hubs across 23 boroughs and provided more than 58,880 meals to over 12,590 children and young people during the school holidays. Among those helping deliver the programme across the capital are youth clubs, schools, faith groups, adventure playgrounds and community centres.

Lunch Bunch, run by Islington Council, is a concrete example of how a local authority can provide activities and lunch for children during the holidays and cater for all interests – with picnics, library and sports-based interventions.

In addition, a total of ten boroughs have received City Hall support to develop food poverty action plans which commit the council concerned and its partners to taking actions such as increasing the take up of relevant benefits, improving people’s access to affordable food, cooking and nutrition education and budgeting advice – all crucial to combating hunger during the holidays and right across the year.

There is much to celebrate in the response to child hunger at a regional and local government level in London. However, it cannot be acceptable that where a child lives and whether they have access to a scheme addressing this problem has such a strong influence over whether they get to eat.

Children have a right to food. What is less clear is how that right can be guaranteed in London when schools are out. It is a responsibility we take seriously at City Hall, despite the absence of any statutory duty for the Greater London Authority to do so. With so many of London’s children facing yet another precarious and potentially hungry summer, we need national government to do the same.

Fiona Twycross is a Londonwide London Assembly Member and sits on its economy committee. Last year, she published a response to the Mayor’s draft London Food Strategy. Image from London Food Strategy webpage.

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