Being a parent with two small children is challenging at the best of times. Being cooped up with two small children during lockdown, however, has been a whole new ballgame. One thing I have thankfully never had to worry about is whether I would have enough food to be able to feed my children.
During lockdown, I’ve often thought about a conversation I had with a young constituent of mine called Rebecca, who told me about her three children and how school lunches are often the only proper meals they get in a day. Rebecca described how inadequate she feels as a mother when her children pester her for food, and how she prays every night that one of their friends will invite them over for dinner. I can’t imagine what the Covid-19 crisis must have done to a family that was already struggling to make ends meet.
Free school meals, which are offered to around 1.3 million children in low incomes families, are designed to stop children in exactly these circumstances going hungry. When schools closed to most children in March, the government had the good sense to continue providing free school meal support at home through vouchers and other schemes. After initial reluctance, ministers extended this over the Easter holiday and May half-term.
There have been problems with the voucher scheme which I have been urging Ministers to sort out, but there is no doubt that this support has been a lifeline for so many families like Rebecca’s. Food insecurity has doubled in this pandemic, and we know that more than 200,000 children have skipped meals that their parents couldn’t afford to pay for. I dread to think about the fact that this is only going to get worse over summer as the full economic impact of Covid-19 starts to bite.
Yet the government has said that it won’t continue funding free school meals over the summer. Do they not realise the impact that this callous decision will have on the poorest children in our society? If the prospect of many thousands of children going hungry wasn’t bad enough, this decision will also set back the education of the most disadvantaged children who have already suffered from school closures. No child can learn while they are hungry.
The huge job and income losses we’ve seen in recent months will have substantially increased the number of children who should be getting free school meals. There are also many more parents who are not technically eligible for the benefit but are facing food insecurity in this crisis, as well as over 500,000 children who do qualify but have not been accessing this help. We should be debating how to make sure support reaches all those who are struggling, rather than scrambling to pull the plug on the schemes we already have.
A lot of tragedy has occurred across the country this year. People have lost jobs, income and loved ones. We have a responsibility as public servants to ensure that the well-being and health of our children is not damaged further. To prevent further tragedy, I would urge the government to take a leaf out of the Welsh Labour government’s book. They’ve committed £33m of funding to ensure that school food programmes will continue over summer.
250,000 people have now signed a petition calling on the Prime Minister to do the same in England. I hope he’ll listen to them before thousands more children go hungry.
Tulip Siddiq is Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn.