The writer is an anti-food poverty campaigner
Food insecurity is back in UK headlines, and parents have taken to social media to post images of their inadequate free school meal parcels. Looking at their photos of limp bread and bruised bananas, I wondered at the thinking behind it all. Children are home from school but so are most parents. Why, then, has agency been taken from them and these parcels arrived instead of money or vouchers? As one mum tweeted about her five-day food parcel, which cost £10.50 after packaging and distribution: “I’d have bought this for £5.22.”
Since the start of the pandemic the nation’s welfare system has been put under immense pressure. Yet for the £15 per child it costs the public purse for one week’s worth of “meals”, I would be able to feed a child varied, nutritious, balanced lunches for at least seven full days. After all, if a child won’t eat the stale rolls and soft tomato they’ve been given as a handout, then it’s not a meal; worse, it’s a waste of money and resources. Most parents could do the same as me. Yet it feels at times like it’s part of the job description to magic meals from nothing.
Still, magicking meals from thin air fails even the best of us and so, yes, some people need help — especially now. Because food insecurity, at its heart, is a symptom of a wider disease: poverty. I can’t even now find the words to fully articulate the stress that comes from empty cupboards and an empty purse, nor the anxiety of going to a food bank. To know poverty is to know terror — you begin to fear a knock on the door or the ring of a phone in case it’s bailiffs or someone has called social services. It’s to have a growling stomach and a crying child because, no, you can’t buy them a McDonald’s or a chocolate bar, and dinner will just be pasta with a tin of tomatoes as a sauce. Again.
I once lived in this “grey area”. And today, as I lose more hours of work due to Covid-19 and the office remains closed, I live in terror of finding myself back there. I am not the only one, because food poverty is a growing issue in the UK, with food bank use rising steadily, more families needing support as rents overtake wages and food prices continuing to rise.
The heartbreak of feeling like a failure, unable to provide a balanced and fun diet that will engage your child with food and set them up with healthy eating habits for life, is damaging. Yet too many people in the UK know this heartbreak. Even to qualify for free school meals, annual household income must fall below £7,400, pre-benefits; just one worker on a minimum wage busts that limit. As a result, of the 4.2m UK children who live in poverty, two in five miss out on this crucial resource. And it’s not even that great either: expensive, anonymous and not particularly nutritious.
Following the Twitter storm, the government this week reinstated its Edenred voucher scheme, allowing schools to order supermarket gift cards on behalf of parents, who can redeem them. It has potential, but at present it only runs until February 12 and schools have to opt-in.
In the meantime, parents are making do. I felt for one woman, who shared a picture of a food parcel and whose child watched her set it out, over the indignity of having to rely on a nameless government caterer to sustain the most precious thing in her life.
A voucher, while just a sticking plaster on a broken welfare system, would have given this mother agency. It would have given her the ability to buy food she knows her child would eat. Instead, she was patronised by a government which thinks they can do her job better, which is nothing new. What is new is how many people are now watching it happen.