'Back to school means not being hungry any more for many pupils. Too many'

Children across the country recently returned to school. Parents and grandparents may well be breathing a sigh of relief.

School meals

It is a great shame that many pupils will be doing so as well, writes MP Frank Field.

Every child should be able to enjoy the school holidays, playing with their mates or going on family adventures – lots of children will have accrued special memories this summer that will last a lifetime. But for a great many others, each holiday brings anguish and hunger, as they often have no idea where their next meal is coming from.

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A cross-party group of MPs and peers, which I chair, found earlier this year that up to three million children are at risk of going without food in the holidays. The group found also that those children who exist on impoverished diets during the holidays fall even further behind during the first few weeks of the new term, as they struggle to shake off the sluggishness and fatigue that hunger has vested upon them.

Some parents, of course, couldn’t care less. But the vast majority of parents on low incomes are doing everything they can to make meagre budgets stretch to cover the additional costs of food, gas and electricity, and activities to keep their children occupied during the holidays – these costs tend to weigh more heavily on family budgets as the holidays wear on.

Make no mistake, in many communities there are remarkable volunteers and community groups doing what they can to help those families. They are showing enormous kindness and often great ingenuity to ensure children have something to eat and something to do – be it cooking, arts, crafts, dance, or sporting activities.

Feeding Britain, a charity set up by the cross-party group to lead the fight against hunger in this country, has helped 2,000 children in our first pilot area, Birkenhead, access free meals and fun activities during the holidays. It has also commissioned similar projects in Barnsley and Bradford. In Leeds, meanwhile, the Old School Junk project this summer sought to tackle waste and hunger, teaching children about food and providing nutritious meals to families.

Gutsy volunteers, compassionate staff and creative campaigners are working wonders to lift those families free from the clutches of hunger, but across the country, provision for children during the holidays is sporadic, unpredictable and far from comprehensive.

Such projects often exist on a hand to mouth basis, depending on a series of short-term grants. Sometimes food is available only on certain days. Many areas have no provision at all. For every child helped by one of these projects, others are going hungry and missing out.

That is why, last week, I presented the School Holidays (Meals and Activities) Bill in the House of Commons. This legislation, supported so far by 125 MPs from six parties, would ensure no child goes without during the holidays. It would give local authorities a legal obligation to ensure food and activities are provided and it would allocate funds using proceeds from the sugar tax.

The exact approach may well vary from region to region. Where proven programmes are operating, it may make sense to ensure simply that they have the resources they need to develop and grow. Elsewhere, local authorities may seek to work with charities, businesses, schools, and other local groups to develop solutions. What all projects will need is guaranteed funding and guidance, which can come only from a statutory system.

There are two clear incentives for the Government to pick up this Bill: at nil extra cost to the public purse, it would revolutionise the life chances of millions of poorer children with good food and enriching activities; and it would cut off one of the main supply routes to Britain’s food banks.

Those leading Conservative backbenchers who are supporting the Bill realise that the Government has the power to make this year’s summer holiday the last one ever in which children in this country are hungry. Campaigns such as End Hunger UK are helping to mobilise public support and the Prime Minister has also reported that she is looking closely at the Bill.

So the case for action is gaining strength. In Yorkshire alone, 16 MPs have pledged to support the Bill, and I hope The Yorkshire Post’s readers will encourage their own representatives to consider lending their support ahead of the Bill’s second reading in January.

Yorkshire was the birthplace of school meals 110 years ago. Bradford educationalist Margaret McMillan and the city’s MP Fred Jowett led that campaign, sparking a reform that brought immeasurable benefits to generations of children across the land.

It is time now to make another landmark change, to further improve the health, educational and economic wellbeing of millions of families and children by making holiday hunger a thing of the past.