Please sir, can I have some more?

Photo by Obi Oneador, courtesy of unsplash

There has been a lot written lately on poverty, child poverty, food poverty and in the wake of the fiasco over free school meals during school holidays, child food poverty. This in the context of the UK (currently) being the fifth richest country in the world.

So how have we got into this position, and more importantly, how do we get out of it? I was fortunate to recently watch Richard Wilkinson, at a meeting of the North East Humanists. In 2009, together with Kate Pickett, he wrote the memorable ‘The Spirit Level : Why Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better’. This proposed that inequalities within society had extremely negative impacts, and focused on the idea that social, economic and other outcomes were significantly worse in more unequal countries.

Note the date was 2009, before the coalition and conservative governments and their programme of austerity. Wilkinson and Pickett’s new book, ‘The Inner Level : How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Wellbeing’, focuses more on the psychological consequences of inequality. So it’s not surprising we are hearing about the parallel pandemic of mental ill-health.

There is something particularly abhorrent about child poverty. Is it because we perceive children and young people as being innocent? It isn’t their ‘fault’ they are in the situation. There is nothing they can do to earn their way out of poverty. They are blameless. But of course the reality is the vast majority of people in poverty are there because of factors outside their control.

‘Feeding Britain’ is a charity with a vision of “a UK where no one goes hungry”.  It isn’t just a network of food banks. It examines how hunger and its underlying causes can be addressed and uses this information to advocate for systemic change to eliminate hunger in the UK. It is a national network and has a presence in South Shields using local community bases and churches. It is now reporting that middle-income families, who have never used food banks, have suffered financial problems because of Covid-19 and are now turning to food banks for help.

Covid-19 is making the current inequalities in society more marked and starker. Where  inequalities currently exist because of sex, age, race, ethnicity or other characteristics, they will be much worse. Without a doubt, those of us who have significant income can afford to stay at home, keep our heating switched on or relax in private gardens. We can order food deliveries from well-stocked supermarkets or local specialist shops and markets. Our homes are secure and our mortgages minimal or paid off. We are actually ‘saving money’ by being denied spending it on overseas holidays, meals out, theatre tickets etc. We can pay to watch quality performances – sport, culture and attend online classes. We are protected and secure.

Clearly many people and organisations have stepped in to help out during the pandemic. I’ve written before about the value of everyday kindness, mutual aid and charities. But it is not, and should not be the role of charities to provide where the state fails or refuses to provide.

Much has been said by the Government of their previous ‘holiday hunger’ (I hate that phrase as it isn’t only in the holidays that children go hungry) scheme. Specific local authorities were invited to put bids in to compete against each other to provide food and activities in the school holidays for the poorest children. Although both Newcastle and Gateshead and other North East council areas were successful with their bids, the very fact this was a competitive scheme covering less than 10% of the UK, shows its inadequacies.

For a long time, those of us interested in the world of welfare benefits and social security have looked at universality and targeting benefits. It’s clearly a difficult area with pros and cons. Many people object to universality as being wasteful and giving money to those who don’t need it. Whereas the cliff edge of targeted benefits, the disincentives to claiming, the stigma attached to ‘being in receipt of welfare support’, the burden of administration, the groups who just miss out, and the numbers of eligible people who don’t apply, are arguments against targeting.

Over sixty years ago Richard Titmuss argued for the importance of middle class buy-in. If all of us use the state education and heath services, it is in all our interests that they are high quality. We all benefit from non-discriminatory services which also encourage social integration. Universal services benefit all. In the UK all resident citizens can use the NHS, the state education system and have a right to certain benefits. Most older people receive a state pension.

So going back to school meals, let’s see how we could improve the situation. In 1906, horrified by the physical state of recruits for the Boer War, the Liberal Government introduced the Education (Provision of Meals) Act, which allowed Local Education Authorities (LEAs) to provide free meals to elementary school children (aged 3-11 years). However, the government didn’t pay for them and only 7% of those schoolchildren benefitted. The 1944 Education Act required all LEAs to provide a midday meal and set nutritional guidelines. A charge of 6d (2.5p) was allowed from 1949, whilst still providing some meals free. There was free daily school milk and in the 1950s and 1960s about half of all children took a school meal (with 5-10% getting a free school meal).

From the 1970s onward, successive governments have pulled back from the state provision of a nutritional meal. Remember “Thatcher the Milk Snatcher”? Usually the dogma was around the Nanny State – though I’m rather taken with David Baddiel’s comment that the ”people who most object to the Nanny State are nearly all brought up by nannies”. The growth of the food industry, junk food, consumer choice and fast food – also the drive of privatisation, reduction of council costs, crackdowns on benefits and the reduction in numbers of those entitled to Free School Meals resulted in a decimation of the school meals service.

So I would like to propose something different. Rather than focusing on the 1.4 million school children who are entitled to free school meals, or the additional two million who are in low income families who can’t access this benefit, why not consider school meals (and yes this would include breakfast and snacks) as part of general educational provision?

The reintroduction of school kitchens, the expansion of the school meals service, opportunities for training and development would provide employment opportunities for many people losing their jobs in the hospitality sector.

The provision of healthy, nutritious, culturally appropriate food would help to improve health and tackle the growing rates of childhood obesity and diabetes. Local food chains and suppliers could be developed ensuring high-level food standards and creating sustainable markets for British food producers.

Nominated school kitchens would be open throughout school holidays and provide a meal for any child or young person who asked for it. This wouldn’t stop any associated play, crafts, culture or sports activities – in fact it would enhance them.

This isn’t an original idea – we would be joining countries across the world such as Sweden, Finland, Estonia and India in providing free school meals. All children and young people would eat together and food would be more normalised. This is what happens in many private schools in the UK.

Don’t we want the best for all our children?

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