The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child came into force in 1992, which stated that every child has the right to adequate and nutritious food. 30 years later and the reality for many children and young people across the UK is that food insecurity is an everyday reality. On 25 April 2019, The Children’s Future Food Inquiry released its report after conducting a year-long inquiry into poverty and food insecurity amongst children across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It became clear that although the issues faced from the various nations differ across the nations, food insecurity remains an overall problem which needs addressing urgently. It is estimated that one in three – equating to 4.1 million – children live in poverty in the UK and an estimated 2.5 million living in ‘food insecure’ households.
Food security is defined as an individual’s ability to secure enough food of sufficient quality and quantity, allowing them to stay healthy and participate well in society. The reality of the inquiry’s findings is hard-hitting, and food insecurity remains a big challenge for many children’s lives.
Both Sharon Hodgson MP and Dr Phillipa Whitford MP, who co-chaired the inquiry together, expressed their deep dissatisfaction for the current situation. Sharon Hodgson MP expressed this to ITV, where she explained that “children are falling through the safety net, and families are having to rely upon charities and service providers for things such as breakfast clubs, holiday provision and food banks.” The situation remains severe, and we must act quickly if we wish to provide every child with their fundamental right to access food which is of high quality and quantity.
The report set out a wide range of recommendations for both inside and outside of educational settings, outlining how policymakers and industry experts can support the cause, including the creation of an Independent Children’s Food Watchdog which includes young people to oversee and develop policies which directly impact their everyday lives.
The detrimental effects of hunger
Children who face food insecurity in their day to day lives experience dramatic effects on their behaviour, mental and emotional wellbeing and attainment.
Behaviour is affected by prolonged periods between meals and hunger, but also by the level of stress and anxiety which is directly linked to food insecurity. This is impacted further if the entire family is negatively affected by food insecurity at home, heightening a child’s insecurity before they’ve even entered the classroom.
For children and young people, being hungry can impact their learning and ability to concentrate in the classroom, therefore potentially leading to devastating effects on their educational attainment. The feeling of being physically hungry in a classroom can lead to a child feeling drained, physically uncomfortable, irritable and embarrassed by the thought of their stomach rumbling in a quiet classroom. A Young Food Ambassador stated that “if you’re not eating it can really trash your confidence. Makes it hard to concentrate – instead of thinking about what you’re learning, you’re thinking about food”.
Schools, headteachers and teachers across the country are already implementing incredible provisions to reduce the number of children who are hungry during the school day. For example, Nadhim Zahawi, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families, reiterated during his speech at the report launch that under The Childhood and Obesity Plan, the Department for Education (DfE) is investing up to £26 million in the National Schools Breakfast Programme, delivered alongside charity, Family Action and Magic Breakfast. This programme is setting up and improving more than 1,700 breakfast clubs across the country and couldn’t be implemented without the fantastic teams on the ground in schools. This is a step in the right direction, but we’re not quite there yet in terms of identifying best solutions for food insecurity. As Dame Emma Thompson stated at the event, we need to not reinvent the wheel, but learn from those who are already examples of best practice and share these ideas across the entire UK, building on these ideas and keeping children and young people at the heart of it.
Let’s end the stigma
Another important finding from the report highlighted that many young people who receive school meal allowances felt shamed, embarrassed and would often socially isolate themselves during lunch breaks to avoid engaging in the lunchtime queues when it’s busy and reveal their status of having ‘free school meals’.
This shouldn’t be the case, and the stigma which surrounds the name ‘free school meals’ must be eradicated. Children shouldn’t have to feel shame or shy aware from the lunch queue in fear of reporting their name and being identified as a user of ‘free school meals’. Therefore, the inquiry suggests that ‘free school meals’ should be renamed to ‘school meal allowance’ to remove this pressure felt by kids every day.
Also, many young people in the secondary school reported that when they forget or are not present at school to use their daily food allowance during lunch breaks, this leftover money is removed at the end of the week. Although constant saving should not be encouraged, there is an argument for allowing young people to carry their leftover allowances into the next week. Not only does this teach them valuable lessons related to saving money, but it also introduces concepts such as budgeting, giving them an opportunity to have a larger meal and enjoy their lunch.
The truth is hard-hitting. There is still a high number of children and young people who are facing food insecurity and we need to act now. The Children’s Future Food Inquiry clearly highlights that it is going to be the younger generation who will deliver this change and they’re aiming to start this process right now, with policymakers guiding them through the process. We have the recommendations from the young people on how to do this, so now is the time to start implementing these and ensure that child poverty is eradicated, just like The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which came into force in 1992 aims to achieve.
To read more about the inquiry, please click here.