Theresa May is being urged to support a cross-party bill to stop some of Britain’s poorest children going hungry in their school holidays.
The School Holidays (Meals and Activities) Bill would force councils to provide free meals for up to three million youngsters missing out on lunch in the six-week summer break – and avoid the need to go to food banks.
The new legislation, due to be presented before Parliament by veteran Labour MP Frank Field on the first day the Commons returns from its recess next week, comes amid fresh evidence of hunger among those most in need.
Some 14% of all children at primary school receive free meals during term time - but many of their families are so poor they struggle to feed them during the summer break.
Blogging for HuffPost UK, Field said that as many as three million children “are likely to have been hungry, either on a couple of occasions, or persistently, over the past few weeks”.
“In many of these cases, that hunger will have become much more ominous a threat with each passing week, with parents gradually reaching their wit’s end trying to stretch the family budget further and further.”
He urged ministers to fund councils’ £41m cost of summer free meals and activity clubs through the Government’s new ‘sugar tax’ levy.
Charities and others which provide free meals at summer activity clubs for children have found the take-up to be strong.
Buying lunch every day in summer costs families at least £90 per child over six weeks, even if they keep costs capped at £3 per meal.
With many parents earning the minimum wage, those with two or more children and in receipt of free school meals are facing an extra £180 bill in the annual break.
Another cause of child hunger in the school holidays is among families classed as the “working poor”, according to a report earlier this year.
Field, a former welfare minister and the chairman of the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee, revealed that he has gathered new evidence that the problem is growing.
One community project worker in the North East of England reported that “as the summer progressed we found that the children would come in, in the morning, and have breakfast straight away.
“They would then eat larger amounts at lunch time, asking for seconds […] One of the youth workers asked a child that was having an extra breakfast at 2.30pm would it not spoil his tea and he replied he would probably just have [a chocolate bar] from [the local shop].”
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger, which Field chairs, also found in its ‘Hungry Holidays’ report that poorer children who are hungry in the holidays fall an extra month behind their peers in the new term.
“If the Prime Minister were to pick up this bill and run with it, at nil extra cost to the Government, she would tackle overnight one of the great injustices afflicting children in this country: a widening of inequalities at school caused by a lack of food during the holidays,” he said.
“Likewise she would immediately be cutting off one of the main supply routes to food banks.”
The bill has the backing of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady, one of a total of 113 MPs of all parties have given their support.
As well as Brady, the 15 Tory MPs backing the bill include former Cabinet ministers Oliver Letwin, Nicky Morgan and Caroline Spelman. Conservative backbenchers include Zac Goldsmith and Jacob Rees-Mogg. The legislation is a “presentation bill” rather than a Private Members Bill and will rely on Government time for any progress.
HuffPost UK visited a summer club on Merseyside that provided free lunches for youngsters, as well as help with education, in the summer months.
In his blog, Field said: “When one little girl turned up at one of our brilliant Feeding Birkenhead projects, she was so hungry that she didn’t mind missing out on the fun, as long as she could just eat something.”