Jayne Dowle: Shame on this nation over our children's hunger

Are you preparing excitedly for your annual summer holiday, flying your family off to the sun perhaps? Or are you looking at the pennies in your purse and despairing of even buying your children an ice cream?

Many children face going hungry over the long six-week break from school. (JPress).

I’m not being over-dramatic. I’m talking about school holiday hunger. And let’s be clear. This is not the endless plea of “can I have some crisps/chocolate/an ice lolly with sprinkles on?”, but proper hunger. The kind that makes children ill. The kind that stunts their growth, affects their development and breaks their parents’ hearts. And it’s affecting thousands, if not millions, of children in the UK today.

A new report by the Trussell Trust, an organisation which runs more than 420 food banks across the country, says that many children face going seriously hungry over the long six-week break from school. The report’s findings underline a situation any government should be ashamed of. Figures from last summer show that in July and August, 67,506 three-day emergency food supplies were provided for children by its network, an increase of 4,412 parcels from May and June, when children would still be in the classroom.

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This year, whilst political insiders and do-gooders were tying themselves into knots over whether the Prime Minister was right to provide a free hot breakfast, cold breakfast, sandwiches at lunch time or nothing at all for school pupils, everyone forgot that the summer holidays were fast-approaching. Talk about missing the point.

No free school dinners. No milk. No playtime snacks of fruit or breakfast of toast. For parents on the breadline, providing food for six weeks is a huge demand.

Indeed, any parent who has ever had difficulty making ends meet will tell you that this is the toughest time of year. The ridiculous cost of childcare aside, these six weeks represent one constant demand on resources. I know some families who swear that it makes economic sense to take their children away on a cheap all-inclusive deal for as many weeks as feasible, as it costs less money than staying at home.

These would be the very lucky children then. Too many of their generation will be wondering just what’s in the food parcel this week. Can I please remind everyone that we’re living in the United Kingdom in the 21st Century? Children should not be reliant on the kindness of strangers to survive a six-week holiday which should be full of fun and adventure.

I don’t care how feckless parents are in the kitchen. I have no moral right to preach about home-cooked food and happy vegetables, and neither has anyone else. I just don’t want to live in a society which allows children to go hungry. And seriously, it comes to something when parents don’t even have the means to nip into a supermarket and buy a week’s supply of ready meals and Pot Noodles.

This new report finds that more than a third of all the food distributed from food banks goes to children, with five-to-11-year-olds more likely than any other children to receive help.

The Trussell Trust is urging members of the public to keep up the donations. And in addition, there are many unsung heroes up and down the country feeding such youngsters out of the kindness of their own hearts. Here in my Barnsley, my friend Sara, who runs a café which supports vulnerable families, is offering free breakfasts for children and family teas for a pound or so. However, as Samantha Stapley, the organisation’s operations manager for England says voluntary organisations alone cannot stop children facing hunger: “As a nation, we also must address the reasons why families with children are referred to food banks in the first place.”

And do you know what the official reaction was? A spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “Employment remains the best route out of poverty.” She also said a few more things about the £90bn benefits bill the government foots every year, but didn’t mention that a significant proportion of this is to meet the shortfall in wages workers actually earn.

If the issues of low pay, zero hours contracts, unscrupulous private landlords hiking up rents, loan sharks and a myriad other issues which affect the household budgets of respectable hard-working families were taken seriously by the Government, we might not be in a situation in which children are having to rely on hand-outs of tins of beans.

And this is not to mention the families whose problems go even deeper. Children growing up in homes riven by serious illness, addictions, abuse and mental health issues are living lives so blighted that money alone can’t even begin to make a difference. Where’s the help they require?

It’s not even a case of promising jam tomorrow. Bread. Drinks. A nourishing dinner every day. It’s the stuff of life we’re talking about here. And it is not acceptable for government to dismiss the very real need of countless families this summer with airy advice about budgeting tips and benefit advances.