THE BLOG

Running on Empty: Why Food Poverty Can No Longer Be Tolerated

14/01/2016 17:45 | Updated 14 January 2017

I remember what it was like being at school. Being stuck in a classroom for nearly six hours of the day, whilst teachers worked hard to ensure I had the foundations for a bright future. I was expected to focus. I was expected to concentrate.

Now imagine doing this on an empty stomach.

Almost 3.7million children in the UK are living in poverty. That means more than eight in a classroom of 30 could be coming to school hungry and going home with no guarantee of an evening meal.

Imagine getting up and having no food. Nothing to provide energy for the day ahead. Sometimes still hungry from the night before. Literally running on empty.

How can this be in an economy which is ranked sixth largest in the world, and which is forecast to become the second largest in Europe by 2020?

As the economy grows, the life chances of more than one-quarter of UK children will shrink. Figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies predict that up to 100,000 more children will be living in poverty in Scotland in 2020 than in 2012.

In a developed nation, such as the UK, food poverty in this day and age is totally unacceptable. Not only does it weaken wellbeing, damage educational achievement and squander potential, but it is unjustifiable in a modern society and a country with plenty.

In the UK, free school meal (FSM) entitlement is a recognised indicator of poverty.

The national charity I run, Children in Scotland, recently worked in two communities across the country - Ibrox in Glasgow and Irvine in North Ayrshire. Both are considered to be at the eye of the storm when it comes to deprivation.

Headteachers at local schools in these communities report the challenges families face not in terms of education but basic need. They talk about profoundly stressed and malnourished parents, and children returning to cold homes with no prospect of food.

According to the staff, Ibrox Primary has a 71% take-up of free school meals, and at Irvine Royal Academy in North Ayrshire almost half of pupils receive clothing grants.

There are already a myriad of demands placed on schools in terms of attainment, pupil support and family engagement. What we are hearing is that they now also have to cope with and balance additional issues and the injustices that poverty brings. That they continue to do so is testament to the staff, pupils and parents.

But they cannot do it alone, and they shouldn't have to. They need our help.

In collaboration with Scottish Business in the Community and food suppliers Brakes, Children in Scotland have launched our new project, designed to address food poverty in these communities. Initially focusing on Ibrox and Irvine, our Food, Families, Futures programme will ensure the provision of meals in schools at weekends and during holidays - times when access to free school meals ends and many families are plunged into crisis.

Our ambition is to develop a programme that could be replicated across Scotland, but carefully tailored to areas of greatest need.

Leading market research company Ipsos Mori recently revealed that 18 per cent of those polled regarded poverty as "the most important issue facing Britain today". But in public discussion, harsh attitude towards what is perceived to be "welfare dependency" dominates. "

Launching its Talking About Poverty event recently, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said that those seeking to tackle poverty in the UK need to find a more effective story to shape public understanding of the issue and motivate compassion and action.

We can do this by promoting evidence and exposing the reality of what communities affected by poverty and deprivation face, and highlighting the day to day experiences of the children and families whose lives are blighted by the struggle against poverty and hunger.

We also need to understand that policy decisions do change lives. Between 1999 and 2012, 1.1 million children were lifted out of poverty. Policy makers, and those who inform them and drive policy forward, really do have the power to change lives.

Mitigating against the effects of poverty through early intervention not only makes moral sense, but financial sense too.

Research from Loughborough University estimates that child poverty costs the UK at least £29 billion a year. In addition, children in poverty are less likely to gain the skills required for employment and as a result the talent pipeline of the UK is stifled, meaning the potential tax yield for the UK Exchequer is lowered.

So whether you come at the problem from the heart or the head, tolerating child poverty makes no sense.

In the absence of an immediate political solution, charities such as ours, in collaboration with businesses that share our values, need to help children in deprived communities and encourage a better quality of informed dialogue around child poverty. Not just in Scotland, but across the nation.

We need to work together, and quickly, to ensure our young people and their potential isn't determined by poverty.

That means achieving something we all agree on: fewer children beginning and ending their days hungry.