Around half a million children could be at risk of going hungry due to the knock-on effects of coronavirus (Covid-19). But ultimately, it’s not the pandemic which will cause this. It’s current government policy and years of Tory cuts which could leave over 500,000 children struggling to get fed.
Coronavirus: hitting children
As The Canary previously reported, with schools shut the government has rolled out a scheme to cover free school meals. Parents will either get supermarket vouchers or food parcels delivered. Schools Week claimed that parents would be entitled to £15 a week in vouchers. But The Canary has seen an email from one school which is only providing £12.50 worth of vouchers. As the Mirror reported, some schools are getting their catering suppliers to send out packed lunches. But some teachers are saying these are not good enough:
If you are a child on Free School Meals in Bristol this is what you get for the week. The school pays the contractor £11 for this. Check out the butter. We have 185 of these to distribute. Shameful! pic.twitter.com/90eARG1fGw
— Peter Overton (@overton66) March 24, 2020
Here’s where the problems begin.
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An inadequate response
Schools get a £2.30 allowance per day to feed children on free school meals: £11.50 a week. But this amount of money is at cost price to the catering supplier; not the retail price we would pay if we were buying the food in the shops. So, what a catering supplier can feed a child with for £2.30 is not what a parent buying the food from a supermarket can.
In 2017, around 42% of children entitled to free school meals actually received them. Even if that figure stayed the same, it would now equate to around 546,000 kids. Meanwhile, for over one million children the school lunch is often the biggest meal of the day.
But this doesn’t account for the estimated 85% of schools who also have breakfast clubs. A government scheme runs 1,800 of these. Around 45% of breakfast clubs are free for parents and the government’s own data from 2017 showed that 41% of children going to breakfast clubs were also entitled to free school meals.
So, overall this means that nearly half a million children who used to get breakfast and lunch at school won’t anymore. Parents will be expected to feed their kids two meals a day on up to £15 a week, or £1.07 a meal. But given all parents whose children have free school meals are on benefits, this may well be impossible for some.
Dire financial provisions
Research by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) revealed the extent of just how inadequate benefits for children are. For example, if a couple got every possible child welfare payment going, this would cover 95% of the cost of raising their child or two children. But this drops dramatically for a lone parent, to just 69% of the cost.
But this isn’t the full picture. Because for a non-working couple raising two primary school-age children, last year their welfare income would have only covered 56% of total family costs. In other words, while specific child welfare payments cover the cost of raising a kid, the inadequacy of other benefits mean that a family is still way short of the money they need to live.
The CPAG estimated that it costs £151.21 a week to raise one child. But again, for lone parents, this increases to £212.77. This leaves many parents reliant on social security, and in such a precarious situation that even a slight increase in expenses could be devastating. The lack of free school breakfasts and lunches coupled with the inadequate substitution money from the government could tip their finances over the edge.
A worsening situation?
But there’s also the potential for even more children to be hit.
As the Guardian reported on 25 March, around 500,000 people had already applied for Universal Credit. The circumstances of each claimant are not known. But it is likely that within these, there are countless children. Some of these may have previously been entitled to free school meals, anyway. This would be because their parents were getting one of the required benefits, but maybe weren’t claiming for the meals. These parents may have been working part-time (less than 10 hours), but may now have lost work altogether and will need to apply for Universal Credit.
But also, there’s probably countless more who now would get free school meals who weren’t previously entitled. The problem is that parents have to apply to their council for this entitlement. Given the chaos of coronavirus, the likelihood of councils getting free school meals claims processed quickly is low. So, the 500,000 children already hit by a lack of meals at school is likely now an underestimate.
A whole generation of children: lost?
There was already a national crisis in the UK before the coronavirus pandemic. Much of this due to the Tories’ political choice of austerity. Children were already suffering:
- Over four million live in poverty. That’s 30% of kids. 71% of children whose parents don’t work are in poverty.
- Nearly half a million Trussell Trust food bank parcels went to children in just one year.
- 62% of school staff say they see children coming to school hungry on a weekly basis.
- Nearly half of mothers aged 16-24 skip their own meals to feed their children.
- In 2016, over 10% of children in England were malnourished, both by being over-and-under weight.
But now, it appears the government’s less than acceptable response is going to entrench many of these issues. Unless something drastic happens, a whole generation of children is at risk of hunger, malnutrition, and long term physical and mental health issues; more so than they were before. Coronavirus and the Tories’ response to it may affect millions of children for the rest of their lives.
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