Look back in hunger: Britain's silent, scandalous epidemic

Evidence is mounting that thousands of children in the UK are not getting enough food to eat – and that, as financial hardship spreads, their numbers are increasing rapidly

Chris is 10. He and his brother are so malnourished that their skins are pale and they have rings under their eyes. Their older brothers have such an unhealthy diet that they have lost their adult teeth. They live in the sixth-richest city in the world – London. The boys are just four among thousands of Britain's hungry children – victims of a "silent epidemic" of malnutrition in the capital and beyond.

Kids Company, which supports 17,000 children in London, has reported a dramatic increase in the number of children coming to its walk-in centres not in search of shelter or safety, but food. The situation is mirrored around the country. In Barnsley, child-support charities are working with parents who struggle to keep cupboards stocked with such staples as milk, bread and pasta. In Bristol, a youth project has gone from offering a place for teenagers to go for advice and support, to a place they go for a basic meal.

FareShare, a charity that redistributes surplus supermarket food, says soup kitchens, hostels and community groups are struggling to meet demand from parents and young people "desperate" for handouts. Since October, 42 per cent of the groups it works with have faced rising demand for food.

Kids Company, founded in 1996 to provide practical, emotional and educational support to London's most vulnerable children, has seen young people reduced to shoplifting, stealing from bins and eating raw meat. Every week, 70 new children visit the charity looking for support and a meal, compared with 30 a week last year.

Many hungry children are from immigrant families whose parents are not eligible to work or claim benefits. But working parents and those on state handouts are also struggling as the cost of living soars and the job market remains stagnant. "We are seeing effectively responsible parents who are just not managing to have food in the house," said Kids Company's founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh. "Children don't have a public voice so they can't tell us."

The problem is perhaps most visible in schools. Kids Company cites five inner London schools where staff say between 70 and 80 per cent of pupils are affected by food insecurity – not always having food at home, nor knowing where the next meal is coming from.

But it is not just in the capital. A poll conducted in February by Netmums, the largest web forum for parents, found that one in five mothers was regularly missing a meal so her children could eat.

Meanwhile, evidence from Trussell Trust, which supports food banks that give meals to 120,000 people nationwide, also suggests that the problem is growing. Its executive chairman, Chris Mould, said there had been a "huge increase" in demand in recent months – and among the hungry were 36,000 children. Even though the service is expanding, the charity is discovering more and more people in food poverty, who increasingly rely on the charity sector. "What we have seen suggests there are thousands of people in this country going hungry – making hard choices between, fuel, warmth, transport and food," he said. "The pressure falls hardest on mothers and children."

For those on the front line, the problem is clear. "It's all down to money," said Charlotte Williams, who runs Station House, a community group providing childcare services in Thurnscoe, near Barnsley. "We are in a perfect storm. Working parents are having their hours cut and many are losing their jobs. Even where incomes are steady, the cost of living – gas, water, clothes – has gone up to the point that people are having to squeeze their food budget to afford other basics. Next week it will get even worse when working tax credits are cut.

"This week we gave out fresh fruit, and parents said this was great – that they hadn't had it for some time.

"Barnsley is a proud place, parents don't want to admit they can't afford food, but when you see their reaction when we have something we can give away, you can tell immediately what the situation is at home. It's the first thing children ask about when they come in the door – do you have any food?"

The School Food Trust, which advises the Government about children's nutrition, said that for "far too many children" a free school lunch was their only proper meal of the day. "Teachers often report children coming to school too hungry to learn, and fears about whether they will eat at all when they get home from school in the evening," a spokeswoman said.

At the same time as demand at front-line food charities is rising, funding for them is running out. In a survey last year, FareShare found that one in three of its client charities had fallen prey to Government funding cuts; two-thirds were cutting food budgets to stay afloat.

The problem of child food poverty is the worst it has been, even in the experience of seasoned youth workers such as Ms Batmanghelidjh.

"A lot of agencies who could help are short of funding and they are having to gatekeep more or refer more," she said. "I have been at street level 21 years, and lack of food in the last year-and-a-half has become a much more widespread problem than we have seen before. I know of a collective of parents who are shoplifting just to feed their kids."

This week, Kids Company is launching its "Plate Pledge" to help tackle food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition among children. To support the appeal, visit www.kidscoplatepledge.org

Additional reporting by Aaron Lee, Olivia Lee and Raziye Akkoc

Case studies: Starving children

Kids Company has shared the stories of some of London's hungry. Names have been changed and because young children find it hard to articulate their experience, two young adults were asked to recall what it is like to be young, scared and starving.

Chris, 10: "The only food the children were given was cheap, fried, processed food"

Chris and his brother showed signs of extreme malnourishment with pale skin and dark rings under their eyes. His two elder brothers had lost their four adult front teeth and his two-year-old brother was losing his baby teeth prematurely.

His alcoholic father left his mother two years ago. When case workers first visited Chris's home, the only food the children were given was cheap, fried, processed food. The children have very low confidence and were bullied at school.

Chris's key worker now picks him up from school every day and eats a healthy supper with him in one of Kids Company's centres. Now, he loses his temper less.

Amy, 20: "I was so hungry I would even chip bits of brick off the wall and eat those"

"When I was little I was very thin and was very embarrassed about it. I had developed a tummy ache which attached itself to eating and stress, which I believe was something I inherited from my mother's stress around not having enough food.

"I would wake up starving in the night but there would be no more food. When I went to people's houses their parents would make as much food as possible for me and more for me to take home.

"At my best friend's house I would fill up on dog biscuits in between meals. I would wait at my garden fence and ask passers-by for sweets or food. I would even chip bits of brick off the wall and eat those. When I lived on my own and on the streets I would spend days walking around London, hoping to be able to find or steal some food. I would look in every bin and on every bit of the floor."

Joe, 20: "I could hardly eat – my stomach was so shrunken, my ribs were sticking out"

"I was nine when I was first arrested for stealing from a supermarket. I was trying to get baby formula for my sister. When I first came to Kids Company, I could hardly eat anything – my stomach was so shrunken, my ribs were sticking out.

"It took about eight months for me to eat what I should be eating. But I got to have a full meal every day. Coming here made me so happy because I was a lot less stressed. I had stability for the first time. I was able to learn better. I was able to do a lot of things better because I wasn't tired all the time."

Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
News
Clarke Carlisle
sport
Sport
footballStoke City vs Chelsea match report
Arts and Entertainment
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
News
Coca-Cola has become one of the largest companies in the world to push staff towards switching off their voicemails, in a move intended to streamline operations and boost productivity
peopleCoca-Cola staff urged to switch it off to boost productivity
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

    Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

    £17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

    The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

    £28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

    The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

    £30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there