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Onjali Raúf: ‘Kids are hyper-aware of the issues facing the world’

Food poverty has been a recurring theme across the pandemic and thousands of children go hungry every day. Onjali Q Raúf’s new book tells the story of these children as she hopes to incite others to make a difference.

The first rule of Breakfast Club is you don’t talk about Breakfast Club.

Nelson, like millions of kids in this country, belongs to a family that sometimes doesn’t have enough to eat and depends on being fed at school and on parcels from a local foodbank.

He is the hero of The Great (Food) Bank Heist, a book aimed at younger readers about a family that can’t afford to feed itself.

We are with Nelson as he struggles on an empty stomach at school, feel the shame of hiding the hunger from friends. But it’s not a worthy sermon on the evils of poverty in the UK, it’s an adventure story. When food starts going missing from the foodbank his family relies on, Nelson investigates.

For much of the story I wondered if the identity of the dastardly thief was in fact apathy. It wouldn’t be a surprise. Foodbanks, which should only have been a temporary solution, are now a permanent necessity. And with the school holidays now under way, millions of children who depend on being fed at school are impacted by holiday hunger. 

Pre-pandemic, 4.3 million young people were living in poverty and the Trussell Trust found that 2.5 million food parcels went to children. The pandemic has added more pressure to those already on the margins.

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That’s why Onjali Q Raúf wanted to write this book. Food poverty is largely hidden from those who don’t experience it, but the numbers are now so large that chances are there’s a kid in every classroom who doesn’t have enough to eat. But she believes we can make a difference.

The Big Issue: Why did you want to write The Great (Food) Bank Heist?

Onjali Q Raúf: The main reason I wanted to write it was to make any kid going through what Nelson is going through – of experiencing that endless pit of real, deep hunger – to feel less alone. Having been a free school meals council estate child myself, I know what it’s like to feel embarrassed and super-aware of food all the time. As unfair and awful as being hungry is, the worst thing is that feeling of loneliness and shame. I want those two feelings to be banished for good.

What were you hoping readers would take away?

Those experiencing food poverty don’t need to be told what it’s like. They know all too well how tough it can be. The ones who really need to know and truly understand this very different side of life are those lucky enough to have never gone home to a fridge with no food in it. Once we know, we can’t un-know. And if reading the story gets brains whirring and never-before-asked-questions being asked about why this issue is a reality for so many children living in the sixth richest country in the world, then that’s all the takeaway I could hope for.

How aware are kids already about these issues?

I would say our kids are hyper-aware of the major issues facing the wider human world right now. From climate change to refugees to food poverty, I find most children are far more observant and astute than many grown-ups give them credit for. And thanks to Marcus Rashford busting open the decades of silence around the issue, I don’t think there’s a child in the country who doesn’t know who he is or what the words “food poverty” mean.

Children’s stories don’t shy away from the big issues

The statistics tell us there are at least 2.5 million children living in “food insecure” households – what an awful term – right now in the UK. I know most frontline charities would suggest that’s only the visible tip of a much larger iceberg. We would have to be incredibly dismissive of children’s observant natures if we didn’t believe they know about why their school breakfast club needs to exist, or about children living below the poverty line.

What advantage does fiction have over news reports on the issue?

Adult newsfeeds tend to be a daily dose of “this awful thing happened, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. Good night then” – which is why I hate watching the news! But children’s stories refuse to end on that note. They tell us we can do something when everything seems to be at its very worst – and that we must keep trying. Children’s books act as a counterweight to the constant negative language used by the adult world – “you can’t”, “don’t do that”, “stop it”, “you’re too small”.

It’s why most children’s stories don’t shy away from the big issues at all. Death, war, greed, selfishness, grief, abuse, injustice – most children’s stories are steeped in highlighting the consequences of those darker traits of humanity. From the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales to the Narnia chronicles, from Harry Potter and Matilda to Superman and Tracy Beaker, those issues are all there. The only difference in the fictional universe is that we don’t end the story on the full stop of futility.

Why are so many of the problems in society, like food poverty, hidden? Is it a case of us, deliberately or not, having our heads in the sand?

For most of us, it isn’t hidden. We know. We know there are neighbours struggling with poverty, unemployment, illnesses. We know there are homeless people on our streets needing a kind word and a smile and a little help. We are well aware that we live in a world where food banks are needed so much that seeing donation points everywhere has become an everyday reality. The problem we have is that the issues at hand seem so gargantuan, distant and insurmountable – and are presented as such – that there’s an element of not being able to bear heeding them.

I don’t think people deliberately put their heads in the sand unless they’re profiting from the problem. But once people know that hey, the smallest action can be rather wonderful – that you’re not being asked to solve the whole crisis in one fell swoop, just to help the person in front of you or give what you can in the moments you are able, that can help people go from feeling overwhelmed and wanting to look away to focusing on a moment or a single action and mobilising.

The school holidays have been a time of ‘holiday hunger’. Do you think the situation now is better for families like Nelson’s?

Part of the magic of what Marcus Rashford has done is to give the country a map to action. Literally! End Child Food Poverty’s website has a map of every registered place in the country– churches, mosques, schools, businesses, grassroots organisations – from which people can either seek help or go and help out in the efforts to ease holiday hunger for little ones and their families. We didn’t have this before. Now we do. That’s a huge step and does definitely make it easier for anyone wanting to get involved. Parallel to that, however, is a government pushing to make further cuts to an already inadequate welfare system – the proposals to cut £20 from Universal Credit will inevitably push more families into poverty.So lobbying this government, calling our MPs to account and demanding they stop aggravating the problems they have created and dumping them on to the shoulders of us, the public they are meant to be serving, is an area which we still need to do a whole lot more work in. So for those who can get stuck in, it’s going to be a busy summer ahead.

The Great (Food) Bank Heist by Onjali Q Raúf, illustrated by Elisa Paganelli is out now (Barrington Stoke, £6.99). A portion of all royalties from its sale will be going towards Trussell Trust foodbanks and the Greggs Foundation School Breakfast Clubs programme.

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