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It will take a lot more than vouchers to stop thousands of children going hungry this summer

Help The Hungry: While the government has taken some positive steps to address food provision during this crisis, including food deliveries and vouchers, it’s not nearly enough

Anna Kettley
Monday 30 March 2020 19:32 BST
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The Independent and Evening Standard launches the Help The Hungry campaign

While all parents across the UK are worrying about how to home-school their children, many will also be worried about how they are going to feed them over the next six months.

In the UK, one in three (4.2 million) children live below the poverty line, with many finding their safety net falling away as schools shut down. Schools provide much more than education – for many children, it’s the one safe space they have and, crucially, where they’ll get one good meal a day.

Two million children in England do not have access to the food for a healthy diet – the coronavirus pandemic will only make this situation worse. With children at home more, families are finding it difficult to buy healthy food on a budget and may lack awareness of healthy diets – and may also be facing job insecurity. Many families are struggling to feed their children properly.

Free school meals in England play an important role in getting many children one nutritious meal a day, with around 1 million children eligible for benefits-related free meals. Now many of these children won’t be attending school, and we run the risk of a huge upturn in children going hungry during the pandemic.

One headteacher I spoke to said it was the feeding of children that they were struggling with above everything else. While some school meal alternatives have been given, they don’t yet cover everyone who needs it and fail to account for those children who fall between the gaps, not necessarily receiving support from the system. In the short term, while the vouchers aren’t ready, the school has resorted to asking the local curry house to deliver food to families in need – but this simply isn’t sustainable. And when the vouchers do come, what about the children who live in accommodation where there isn’t even a functioning kitchen?

Meanwhile, food banks are inundated with demand and running lower than ever on supplies as donations decrease – we’re hearing from families who were already reliant on food banks struggling to manage on what’s available.

It’s not just the nutrition of school-age children we need to worry about. As frontline health staff are being pulled into coronavirus relief, breastfeeding support is being significantly reduced. We’re hearing reports of parents finding it difficult to purchase affordable infant formula as a result of panic buying and watering down formula to make it last longer, putting babies at risk of malnutrition.

While the government has taken some positive steps to address food provision during this crisis, including food deliveries and vouchers, more needs to be done before children go hungry. Our contacts in schools and local authorities are telling us provision is patchy and that without guidance and leadership, everyone is doing something different, leading to uncertainty and confusion.

At Unicef UK, we’re working with parents, children and frontline staff on how we can reach the families who need us the most. Other initiatives, including The Independent’s Help The Hungry campaign, are trying to plug the gaps too. Help The Hungry aims to highlight how you can help in your area, with money, food donations or volunteering. But, during this time of change and insecurity, the most vulnerable families need and deserve a robust solution from the government. We must not let children slip through the net when it comes to their most basic rights of being kept safe and getting fed.

Anna Kettley is Unicef UK’s director of programmes

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