MP’s notebook: food poverty amongst children

“I see a number of children who are desperate to eat.”

“Lots of children on a normal school day have little or no breakfast.”

“You can tell how much more the children eat on a Monday.”

These are all quotes from staff working in primary schools in Leeds. They were answering a survey on the problem of children who go to school hungry.

Last week the report of the Children’s Future Food Inquiry was published. It took evidence from all over the country, including from children. What it had to say about school hunger made pretty stark and uncomfortable reading.

“Hunger is an extremely debilitating experience. It damages physical health. It is a cause of great personal distress… It affects children’s school attendance, achievement and attainment. Children who are hungry in class cannot concentrate….”

This assessment was echoed in the words of one of the young people who gave evidence. She said this:

“I have experienced food poverty from a young age. Most people don’t understand what it is about. It’s not right that young people go hungry, or can’t access or afford the food they like or want.”

The principal cause is that too many families are struggling to live on too little money. Low wages, changes in circumstances, waiting for benefits and the loss of a job can all have an impact. And children themselves are only too aware of what’s going on.

They know that their parents try really hard to give them enough food to eat and sometimes go without in order to do so. They know how difficult it is for their Mums and Dads. And they really feel the stigma as families that are struggling to feed their children.

We also know that hunger is not just a problem facing children. The Trussell Trust, which supports a nationwide network of food banks, has just reported that last year 1.6 million food parcels were given to people by their network – a rise of 19% on the previous year.

It is shocking enough that so many people are having to go up to a stranger and ask them for help to feed their families, but the fact that this is happening in the sixth richest economy in the world is scarcely believable. And whatever the causes, it’s not right. It’s not right that some children go hungry. It’s not right that because they are hungry they can’t concentrate at school. We need change.

The Children’s Future Food Inquiry is calling for six things. The guarantee of a healthy school lunch. An expansion of the healthy start voucher scheme to increase the value of the voucher and the number of children who benefit. Introducing a financial holiday allowance for families on low incomes to help them buy food during the school holidays. Stopping marketing aimed at promoting unhealthy foods to children. Renaming free school meals as school meal allowances to reduce stigma, increasing its value and making sure that water is freely available at school lunchtimes. And calling for a Children’s Food Watchdog to check on what is happening.

I think most people will see these as sensible recommendations. I certainly support them, and I hope that Government will too. And in the meantime, we should thank the organisations working to provide practical help, including the food banks serving South Leeds and their teams of dedicated volunteers, including the Leeds United Supporters’ Trust and all those fans who have donated so generously during their collections on match days.

If you want to help, or donate food or money then please contact: Leeds South and East Foodbank, 7 Lenton Drive, Parkside Industrial Estate, Leeds LS11 5JW (tel: 0113 345 0850 or email them at: