Children in poverty suffer hunger and stigma, finds new research

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Children growing up in poverty are going hungry and experiencing feelings of shame and social exclusion due to lack of money and food, according to new research.

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A new book, Living Hand to Mouth? Children and food in low-income families, by researchers at the Thomas Coram Research Unit at the UCL Institute of Education, tells the stories of 51 UK children and their experiences of food at home, at school and in social settings. 

The research, published in the book by Child Poverty Action Group, found free school meals are not accessible to many children whose parents are on a low income, and even when they are, they may not provide enough food for children’s needs. 

Some of the children contributing to the study who came from the most severely deprived families, with no recourse to public funds, did not eat at all during the school day, according to the findings.

The research involved 45 low-income families in two areas of south-east England; one inner London borough and one seaside town. Five of the children who participated in the study were at primary school, and 46 were in secondary school. 

Key findings included: 

 Hunger: 

  • Around one quarter of children in the study went hungry at times
  • Just over half (23 of 45) of parents in the study ate too little food, went hungry, skipped meals and/or used food banks
  • Larger and lone parent families were more at risk of food poverty

Respondent Amara, aged 15, told researchers, ‘When I’m hungry I just can’t concentrate, it’s really, really hard for me to do that…so I just need to make my mind up and know that I will eat after five hours, seven hours when I get home [from school].’ 

 Free school meals: 

  • Some schools identify children on free school meals, in particular by restricting the food options they can select, which caused embarrassment for children.
  • Children whose families have no recourse to public funds - usually because of unresolved immigration status - are not entitled to free school meals. Not all schools fund lunches for these children, with the result that children in these families go hungry during school. 

In his response, free school meals recipient Murad, aged 12, said, ‘The baguettes, you can tell in size which one’s which. But like the sandwich boxes, one’s black and one’s brown, and I’m allowed the brown one not the black one. But thing about the baguettes is that if you’re not free school meals, then you get to have bigger food… which I don’t see why. And also they have cheesecakes, so... but there’s the smaller version and there’s the bigger version. And if you’re not free school meals you get to have the bigger version, and if you are you have to have the small version.’ 

Food, socialising and belonging:

  • Just over half the young people surveyed did not have money to spend on food with their friends

Study participant Gideon, aged 15, said, ‘Feels like I’m left out of the fun that happens and stuff. Like it just makes me feel empty.’

Nutrition:

  • Most children and parents in the study were knowledgeable about dietary recommendations. Many parents said they would like to be able to afford more fresh vegetables and fruit.
  • Just over half (26 of 48) of children reported eating vegetables at least five or six times a week and just over a third (17 of 47) reported eating fruit at least five or six times a week – far lower than the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

Chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group Alison Garnham said, ‘The young people in this study make the case for universal free school meals more powerfully than anyone else could. Their hunger, their shame, their sense of being cut off from learning and social opportunities – all because parents can’t afford enough food –are appalling in a society that believes every child matters.   

‘Universal free school meals should be part of the solution but wider Government action is needed – urgently – to eradicate the poverty that underlies children’s hunger. As a minimum, free school meals should be restored for all families on universal credit.

‘It is time to rebalance family budgets after years of austerity and rising child poverty. The priority should be lifting the freeze on working and non-working benefits so that they rise again with inflation.’

Co-author Rebecca O’ Connell added, ‘In the UK, we are living in a period of deep political and economic uncertainty. Given the UK’s planned exit from the European Union, the implementation of further cuts to welfare benefits and rising inflation (including food prices), the plight of families who are struggling to feed themselves is unlikely to improve. Food poverty and its effects on children’s and young people’s physical and emotional wellbeing is a matter of grave concern. In the face of piecemeal responses and government neglect, the outlook is set to remain bleak. Radical change is needed.’

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said, ‘Children who are hungry cannot learn as well as they might be able to. Free school meals at least guarantee that children going hungry at home get one nutritious meal a day during term time. We have to do all that we can to extend that entitlement to every child that is going hungry, and we must fix the problems in society that cause families to fall in to the poverty trap.

‘Currently one in ten eligible children miss out on their free school meals entitlement. NAHT has long called for children to be automatically enrolled to receive free school meals, using the information councils already hold about their family situation. This would take away the barrier of stigma for parents.’

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