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Services ending holiday hunger ‘must be open to any child’ who needs them

‘Previously we fed everybody, because it was holiday hunger. That just wouldn’t be the case this year,’ said one organiser.

As the school summer break approaches for most of the UK, the issue of holiday hunger among children is coming back into focus.

Almost 20 per cent of school children in England were eligible for free school meals at the last count in October 2020. And as the work of England footballer Marcus Rashford moved food poverty up the agenda during the pandemic, the Westminster government responded with a pledge of up to £220 million more to help local authorities coordinate free holiday provision for kids receiving free school meals. 

But while the extra funds have been welcomed, groups putting on activities and free food for children in the school holidays have told The Big Issue they fear having to turn kids away if they are not deemed eligible or do not receive free-school meals. Government guidance says children are eligible for free school meals if their parents or guardians claim universal credit and have a household income under £7,400 a year.

Andrew Forsley, national director of Feeding Britain, told The Big Issue that a universal offering for children in need has been key to the effectiveness of holiday programmes in their network.

“Looking ahead to this summer, I struggle to think of a single club within our network who wouldn’t open their doors to all children in their area, who would turn children away just because they fall above, ever so slightly, the free school meal threshold,” Forsley said. 

“The doors must be open to any child who could stand to benefit,” Forsley added.

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Local authorities must get written approval from central government if they want to use the funding for young people who are not eligible for free school meals, Forsley said. A Department for Education spokesperson confirmed it will “consider allowing” local authorities to use 15 per cent of the funding for children not registered for free school meals.

For Forsley, the fact that this gap exists means the programme isn’t working.

“Doesn’t it redouble the need for the government both to review and hopefully revise that eligibility threshold that is set for free school meals?” he said. “Because ultimately, our goal surely is that no child in poverty should lose out during term time or the holidays.”

Children and Families Minister Vicky Ford told The Big Issue: “Thousands of young people will continue to benefit from the expanded Holiday Activities and Food programme, which the Government is expanding across the whole country with investment of up to £220 million.

“This summer it will continue to provide nutritious food, as well as activities like arts and crafts, sport, and music, to the children who would benefit the most – especially those eligible for free school meals.”

The programme gives local authorities funding for activities and meals “for the equivalent of at least four hours a day, four days a week, six weeks a year”, according to the government website.

The Leicester-based St. Andrews Play Association (SAPA) has been providing holiday activities and food for children and young people between five and 13 years old for more than 20 years. Young people take part in craft projects, fitness classes, and explore play areas, making friends and developing skills. 

Stephen Ashley, secretary at Leicester PlayFair, the umbrella body for the nine adventure playgrounds in Leicester, told The Big Issue his organisation has decided not to use the government’s holiday activities and food programme because it is too strict in terms of which young people can be supported.

“It’s just easier for us not to do it, and then to look for alternative funding to purchase the food ourselves and feed the kids who come,” he said.

“The playgrounds in Leicester have operated for between 40 and 50 years on the basis of treating children and young people equitably. For us, differentiating between the poor and the poorer would be disastrous,” he said. “If we’re going to feed some users, we need to feed all users.”

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Ashley described a potential scenario. An average of 80 children arrive during the summer holidays, with perhaps another 20 who are eligible for free school meals. Children eligible for free school meals go to one door, where they’re fed, and others aren’t.

“Previously we fed everybody, because it was holiday hunger. That just wouldn’t be the case this year,” he said. 

The playgrounds received Covid-19 relief funding, and now plan to approach the same suppliers they have used previously to get fruit, sandwiches, and drinks for the young people on site.

“Our worry is that concentrating huge resources on free school meal recipients is a political smokescreen, designed to distract from the far bigger issue of children living in poverty,” Ashley said.

The next challenge, according to Feeding Britain’s Andrew Forsley, will be to win the argument that these holiday hunger needs are met annually. He wants schemes like these to be part of reconfiguring the welfare state.

“I think that’s our biggest challenge now,” he said. “And clearly the lessons that emerged from this year’s programme will, I hope, shape the size and the nature of that offer in years to come.”

He’s focussed now on implementing an effective programme this year, but knows it will have to be part of a broader argument, where support for holiday provision is given on a more permanent basis.

This need exists, he stressed. And the only way to meet it is with long-term support from the government.

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