Budgets are looking tight as the cost-of-living crisis continues to deepen. Inflation continues apace, energy bills are rocketing, and now children are home for the school holidays creating extra challenges for families on low incomes. Bella Driessen and Sofia Parente, explore national and local food responses in England this summer.
While the UK Government is not directly funding free school meals through the summer holidays in England, they are running the Holiday Activities and Food Programme (HAF), which launched last year. Local councils are expected to offer free spaces on their HAF catered activities for all children eligible for benefit-related free school meals from reception to year 11 and are encouraged to make spaces available to other children that might benefit, for example those in care, with special educational needs or who are at risk of exclusion. Under the scheme, councils receive funding from government to support the most vulnerable families. However, the eligibility threshold for free school meals means around 800,000 children in poverty in England are excluded from free access to the programme, whilst a review of HAF conducted by the Mayor’s Fund for London has been found to be “insufficient to maintain a viable service without ‘top up’ funding from other sources". This is resulting in a postcode lottery in terms of the help families can expect. The review made a number of recommendations about the scheme, notably to extend the eligibility criteria, to provide more funding to local authorities, and to ensure that children can access the scheme every week of the school holidays.
The scheme is a great help to some families but let’s not forget that just under two in five children living in poverty in England are not eligible for free school meals. In order to be eligible for free school meals and the HAF Programme, children in England must be in families on qualifying benefits and earn less than £7,400 after tax. This means many fall through the cracks. A wide coalition of education leaders, food and anti-poverty organisations continue to campaign to expand free school meal entitlement for all children in poverty as an immediate response to the cost of living crisis, and for universal primary school meals in England, which is already being rolled out in Scotland and Wales.
The Household Support Fund will run until March 2023 to help households who are not eligible for other kinds of help or need further support to meet the cost of essentials such as food, clothing and utilities. In England, it will continue to be distributed to Local Authorities. Many local authorities are using this fund to provide additional vouchers to support families with children eligible for benefit-related free school meals. Many areas in the Sustainable Food Places (SFP) Network expressed concern with the allocation framework for the fund whereby “at least one third of the total funding will be ring-fenced to support households with children, at least one third of the total funding will be ring fenced to support pensioners with up to one third of the total funding to other households”. This seriously limits local authorities in terms of the numbers of families they can support, as well as the value of the support they provide, compared to previous summer holidays. Again, this has opened up a postcode lottery in terms of the support families can access. SFP places have raised this with their MPs to try and remove these criteria or at least to revert to the criteria of the first round which was 50% of the funding for families with children and 50% for other, which offered more flexibility.
The Household Support Fund should also continue beyond 2023 as a discretionary fund for local authorities to support the most vulnerable households over the long term. Local authorities can identify with much more accuracy the families most in need and should be allowed to make decisions on the allocation to households based on local population needs.
The Healthy Start programme is a highly targeted way to support low-income young families to eat healthily. However, the restrictive eligibility makes it available to a very small number of families. Furthermore, there are children falling through the gap in support between eligibility to Healthy Start and Free School Meals – which is why we recommend increasing eligibility to all families on Universal Credit and equivalent benefits with children under 5 years old and to families with no recourse to public funds.
Uptake is painfully low, resulting in a current spend lower than 1/3 of what it was 10 years ago according to Freedom of Information requests. In 2021 alone, £70M went unclaimed and to our knowledge it hasn’t been re-invested in healthy eating programmes for those most in need. The current online application system had so many glitches resulting in eligible families being rejected that 46,000 families that were previously on paper vouchers are still locked out of this benefit.
Finally, inflation is outstripping the value of the allowance. The cost of infant formula, for example, has increased for some products by as much as 14% - more than double of the average increase in food prices.
Another recent initiative, launched by the Cost of Living Business Tsar David Buttress, is Help for Households to “develop and promote new and existing business-led initiatives that support people with rising costs of living – from discounted prices or product offers to the expansion of business-run programmes.” However, many of these ‘budget friendly’ ways to feed families on offer by supermarkets come at a high cost to children’s health. Businesses don’t have to uphold to the same standards as schools and many meals on offer are heavily processed and lack fruit and vegetables.
The naked truth is that supermarkets are the largest private sector employers in the UK, so the wages they pay are a big part of achieving household food security. One in six jobs in the UK (17 per cent) pay below the Real Living Wage. More retailers paying the Real Living Wage – money in people’s pockets – would help families much more than meal deals.
A big thank you to Rachel Oelbaum, Sunderland Food Partnership Coordinator, for compiling most of the examples below.
Local areas are responding dynamically despite incredibly limited resources. The examples below illustrate the range of different actions and we encourage local areas to get in touch if they wish to share different actions.
Several councils including Eastbourne Borough Council, Lewes District Council, Hull City Council, Mendip District Council, Ashfield District Council, Dundee City Council, Wakefield Council and Torbay Council have all declared or are in the process of declaring a cost-of-living emergency. In the case of Eastbourne, the council have also released £250,000 of support for local organisations to respond to the crisis.
Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Newham and Islington all offer Universal Free School Meals, with Islington also offering a school uniform grant for those eligible for free school meals under national policy.
The Bradford Foundation Trust and Bradford Metropolitan District Council have established a food voucher scheme and a network of retail outlets across the city where customers can use the vouchers. Devon too is automatically sending vouchers to families of primary, secondary and sixth form college pupils who currently receive free school meals to help them buy food. Eligible pre-school-aged children in Devon County Council maintained nurseries (including academies) also received the vouchers if they usually attended sessions before and after lunch.
In Brighton and Hove, the food partnership have been reviewing their Good Food Strategy and Council policies with “food poverty” goggles on, and the Emergency food network published a statement and wrote an open letter to Rishi Sunak. The Derby Food Poverty Commission also wrote a letter, which they sent to local leaders, and a signposting tool has been developed by the Derby Food 4 Thought Alliance.
With this in mind, food partnerships from across the UK met with MPs in Westminster in July this year to celebrate their work and call for proper support and greater recognition. As a network, we call for a Food Bill in every nation, underpinned by an independent body to champion action and scrutinise progress, and a food plan and food partnership in every local area. We see this as absolutely fundamental to ensuring an effective and systemic response to food poverty, amongst the other pressing issues facing our food system today.
We took a manifesto with us to Westminster, with a vision for a better food system, which would see the local responses described above become the norm across the UK – and could one day do away with food poverty. We call for the following action:
National and local food policy
Proper benefits and a living wage
Universal free school meals
Investment in Healthy Start
Better public sector procurement
Investment in local food systems
Protect local funding
Protect our farmers and food producers
Halve child obesity
Address the climate and nature emergency
Without guarantees from the UK Government for a real living wage, for benefits that are readily available and sufficient for anyone in need of them, for universal free school meals, and for sufficient funding for local authorities, we cannot hope to address the root causes of food poverty. And without protecting farmers, addressing the climate crisis, and investing in local food systems, we can’t hope to do this in a way that builds a healthier and more sustainable food system for everyone.
We need to see responses to the cost-of-living crisis levelled up across the UK. Local authorities, community groups and food partnerships are carrying out incredible work to protect and support their communities, but this needs to be matched with recognition, support, and proper funding from the highest level of government.
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Belfast Food Network's report Enough is Enough: Why we urgently need to tackle food poverty in Belfast looked into why use of food banks has increased in the city and made recommendations for a collaborative response to food poverty. An updated Food Poverty Plan review was published in 2018.
Food Power resources on ‘Mapping and measuring food poverty’, ‘Developing food poverty action plans’.
Belfast City Council initially funded Belfast Food Network (BFN) recognising the role it could play in tackling food poverty. BFN subsequently set up the multi-agency Food Poverty Working Group, including the Council and other key stakeholders, to coordinate action locally. This included undertaking a baseline study and developing a strategic response to food poverty through the Enough is Enough initiative. (p7)
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