In the run-up to Christmas, with schools breaking up shortly for a fortnight, the shame of ‘holiday hunger’ and child hunger in the United Kingdom becomes even more acute and poignant. Foodbanks and food projects around the country are planning for additional need at the point at which most of us are planning to eat and drink to excess over the festive period.
This week’s ‘route-map‘ to ‘ending hunger as we know it in the United Kingdom’ published by Feeding Britain through the all-party parliamentary group on hunger paints a picture of hunger in the UK now. A substantial and detailed document, it cites the causes and scale of the problem – and outlines a wide range of practical ways in which hunger can be addressed. We need political will and action from central government but every level of government has something they can act on in the pages of the report. Councils, for example, can already introduce simple measures to automatically register children entitled to free school meals to increase take-up but most do not do this currently.
Media coverage has picked up on the recommendations in the report around child hunger particularly the call for a sugary drinks tax to fund a national programme of school holiday provision. The section of the report focusing on child hunger in the school holidays highlights evidence provided by Kellogg’s that ‘more than six out of 10 parents with household incomes of less than £25,000 said they weren’t always able to afford to buy food outside of term time’ with the figure rising to almost three-quarters of parents with incomes under £15,000. A parent in August at a project run by Tower Hamlets Foodbank told me that he had lost three stone last year over the summer so that his children could eat. He was clear that without the food the project was providing he would be in a similar situation this year. With children not in school 48 per cent of the year, this is not a marginal issue for families on low income.
A tax of 20p per litre on sugary drinks would raise up to £1bn and the route-map suggests that £200m of this could fund a national programme that could effectively eliminate child hunger during the school holidays. At the moment provision of holiday programmes feeding children is limited. When I looked in to provision in London over the summer as a London assembly member, even within those boroughs in London which do have some provision it was patchy. So much of a child’s future is determined by postcode – it is not acceptable for their access to food to be as well.
Jamie Oliver has already launched a campaign for a 20p tax on sugary drinks earlier this year and his Sugar Manifesto focuses on the health aspects of the policy. This is not an untested policy – a number of countries, including France, tax soft drinks. Mexico saw a significant drop in the amount of sugary drinks consumed when the country introduced a sugary drinks tax.
The idea of using the income from a sugar-based tax to fund child health or food initiatives is not a new one. However, Feeding Britain’s focus on tackling holiday hunger is targeting a specific and acute unfairness in the current system. The tax has also been recommended by the health select committee, although rejected so far by government.
The report does not put the onus entirely on central government to tackle child hunger but it is clear that political will at the highest level is required as without government deciding a new tax is more palatable than child hunger new initiatives involving funding projects through a sugary drinks tax will not happen. Many of the other recommendations echo those made in the initial report Feeding Britain published a year ago around the impact of benefit delays, changes and sanctions, low pay and personal debt.
The route-map should not make comfortable reading for any of us, let alone the government. The human cost alone should prompt the government to action even before the cost to the health service is taken in to account. Even one child hungry is unacceptable.
One of the strengths of the recent Fabian Commission report on hunger – Food and Poverty – was its timed goal to end the need for foodbanks by 2020. If we are to see any progress towards this goal we need government to act now, to admit there is a problem and to be part of the solution. It is a national shame that one of the richest countries in the world has anyone hungry, let alone hungry children, and a scandal that the government is still refusing to do more than tinker round the edges of the problem.
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