Opposite a pizza shop and round the corner from Greggs, KFC, two more fried chicken outlets, a chippy and a kebab shop is Stanhope Primary School.
It is unimaginable there are children in this school in Greenford, London – nestled as it is between so many fast food joints and restaurants – who are going hungry.
But every day, some will walk past these shops and into school with their tummies rumbling.
They will not have eaten breakfast and will sit in their classrooms hungry.
“Despite being in teaching for many years, it still surprises me that hunger is a problem in 2017. Especially when you think about the amount of food that is wasted on a daily basis,” headteacher Sahreen Siddiqui said.
“I wish this problem could just be taken off the table. There are so many social issues that exist, and food just shouldn’t be one of them in this day and age.”
There are many complex reasons why children end up hungry in a city as rich as London, she said. Poverty, of course, is the reason for many, but there are also chaotic home lives to contend with, and a lack of education about food.
“We have had children who will literally come into school without any food for lunch. We will try to get in touch with the parents and they won’t answer their phone because they know they won’t be able to provide them with a lunch, so we have to do it,” Ms Siddiqui said.
“We keep receipts but there are several families who have massive debts with the catering company at school that they are just not able to pay. We have pupils we have to do this for regularly. It’s a moral issue. What do you do?”
Teachers have witnessed children open their lunchboxes and take out one slice of bread and an apple.
They will be sitting next to friends whose packed lunch is overflowing with doughnuts, croissants or leftover pizza.
These children may not lack food but are still missing out on nutrients, leaving them lethargic and unhealthy, just like their hungry friends.
“Some children turn up with nothing in their lunchboxes, but others turn up with badly balanced meals full of carbs, sugar and fat with zero nutritional content. I worry about these children too, just as much as those with no food.” Ms Siddiqui said.
“They have significant health needs. They find it difficult to breathe, difficult to sit on the floor. They have eczema because some of the foods have an adverse reaction to their skin.”
Ms Siddiqui believes a lack of quality food causes both obesity and hunger, and it is these two problems that she is determined to tackle.
Every day the whole school takes part in a five minute “high-intensity training” session in the playground. Children of all sizes joyfully perform star jumps and drop to the floor into burpees.
They must also run one mile every day. With no special equipment or time lost getting changed, children wear their school uniforms and sprint along yellow lines painted on the playground to create a makeshift running track.
At the heart of the school is a state-of the art kitchen that would be the pride of many private schools, where children and their parents are taught to cook healthy food.
There is a water-only drinks policy at the school, and there will be plans for the school breakfast club to start serving parents healthy food as well.
“There are multiple and complex reasons why there are these problems with food,” Ms Siddiqui said. “But we take the view it is not the child’s fault. This is bigger than the child, but we have to start with them.”
At least 21 per cent of children at Stanhope are eligible for free school meals, but not every family takes up their entitlement. “The decisions behind that are complex. There are attachment issues – some feel that feeding their child is their contact with the child and it is therefore very important to them. There are other children who don’t want that type of food,” she said.
Cooking a healthy family dinner is not as simple as it sounds for many families. Some live in temporary accommodation with inadequate cooking facilities, while others have to contend with mental health problems and perhaps issues with alcohol abuse. Some parents were never given home-cooked food themselves and do not know how to cook. And when takeaway meal deals are so cheap, it is often easier to buy two sausage rolls for £1 for dinner.
“You are tired, your child might have had some issues at school that day, there might be homework yet to do. There may be no space at home. Money may be tight,” Ms Siddiqui said.
“All these barriers are a pressure on the adult mind, and when they are then given the mammoth task of parenting as well, it all feels overwhelming.”
She added: “The food problem is far wider than the families who go to sleep hungry. There are also families who can’t provide their children with a nutritionally balanced meal, which means they can’t sleep well either.”
She worries that children who lack food now will experience problems in later life.
“Depriving the body of food can have all sorts of impact on development both physically and emotionally. Food is massively related to self-esteem and low self-worth.” she said.
This is why she is determined to change things for the better, and why Stanhope school has joined the Evening Standard and The Independent’s Help a Hungry Child Christmas appeal.
She said: “As a headteacher, what you are ultimately here to do is improve lives. I am a firm believer in an optimistic approach.
“My dream for these children is to raise their aspirations and make the world their oyster. They need to know how to look after themselves both emotionally and physically in order to make that dream a reality.”
Here are the ways you can donate to our Christmas appeal:
Call – 08000 639281 (freephone)
Text – FELIX £5 TO 70700
Post – Freepost HELP A HUNGRY CHILD