For many families on low incomes, school holidays are challenging times when an increase in financial pressures has a more general impact on the quality of children’s lives.
Families may lack money for entertainment, socialising and educational or developmental activities. During the school term, free school meals and school breakfast clubs act as a partial safeguard against hunger for children from low-income families, but currently there is no government funded, country-wide provision for these children during the school holidays.
Despite a body of research showing the negative effect that hunger has on child development, so-called ‘holiday hunger’ had not been previously researched in the UK. Indeed up until a few years ago, very few people were aware of this issue, despite Parliamentary records showing evidence of holiday hunger since 1907.
I am not particularly fond of the term ‘holiday hunger’ as it is a term that is stigmatising, counterproductive and does not encapsulate the holiday provision now offered to children and families, but I appreciate that it has helped public understanding of the issue.
Over the past ten years, the Healthy Living Lab at Northumbria University has undertaken research into holiday clubs providing support to families. Researching this area is challenging as it involves talking to families about sensitive issues such as their food and financial situation.
In general, findings highlight a need for holiday clubs for many low-income families especially over the longer summer break; and that if it weren’t for holiday clubs, many low-income families would struggle to eat.
Of course holiday clubs do not address the structural causes of poverty, they do however provide an important provision for many families across the summer holidays.
Our research shows that holiday clubs not only provide financial support to low income families, through the provision of a free meal, but also provide a social outlet for parents and their children, as well as wider benefits for the community through social cohesion and building support networks.
We have had the privilege of working with clubs schools, food banks, church halls and community centres right across the UK from Scotland to the South of England. Initially this grass roots provision was fragmented - locating where such activities were taking place, was the first challenge.
However, working in collaboration with the All Party Parliamentary Group on School Food, the APPG on Hunger, Feeding Britain, Sustain, Children’s Commissioners, poverty campaigners and many more organisations, we started to build up a map of need for holiday provision across England.
Alongside conducting this research, we engaged in public debates, discussions with numerous organisations, media outlets and presented both oral and written evidence to Parliamentary Select Committees and the Hungry Holidays Inquiry (2017).
In 2017, our research provided essential evidence for a tabled Private Members Bill that would place a duty on local authorities to ensure that disadvantaged pupils were fed during school holidays. This directly resulted in a government commitment of £2m to fund a series of pilot schemes throughout the summer of 2018 and subsequent funding for £9.1m to support free meals and activities over the 2019 summer holidays, helping 50,000 children.
Following the recommendation of the National Food Strategy to extend the provision of holiday activities, a number of organisations and the footballer Marcus Rashford have joined forces to lobby for change.
Whilst I am delighted that our research findings are contributing to such an important agenda- a totally new development in social policy, real satisfaction comes directly from the service users and seeing the difference we can make.
As the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic continues to hit the most vulnerable, we will continue to support these vital services and lobby for real change.