Speech: We Must End Holiday Hunger
Westminster Hall Debate, 26 May 2021
Before coming to this place, I was a schoolteacher. I saw first-hand the impact of free school meals. Access to a healthy meal can make such a difference to a child’s learning and health. Over the last year, we have all seen headlines about holiday hunger and the fact that too many children go hungry in the school holidays, as families struggle to meet the rising cost of living throughout the pandemic.
In my constituency, 25% of 0 to 15 year-olds live in poverty. Take a moment to consider that statistic: a quarter of children in Barnsley live in poverty. More than 3,000 children are currently eligible for free school meals. As has been mentioned, the Trussell Trust has reported that almost 1 million emergency food parcels were given to children in the last year alone—a 36% rise on the previous year. We should take this opportunity to praise Marcus Rashford for his work to highlight the issue, and for shaming the Government into a U-turn on their decision not to feed hungry kids during school holidays. It should not require a public shaming for that to happen, and it is telling that not a single Tory MP is here for the debate, other than the Minister who is required to be here.
Last week, I visited the holiday hunger project run by Barnsley Council, to see the great work it is doing with the help of volunteers. Barnsley Council is committed to providing good quality food hampers that meet its school meal standards. The good food boxes are provided by the council’s in-house school catering service. Almost 10,000 children were eligible during the Easter holidays. Of that number, more than 2,000 families applied for a box, and 4,000 boxes were put together. That was a huge task for the council, but it could only reach 42% of children. Sadly, the number of eligible children is only set to rise. The Government are funding only half the holidays, leaving the rest of the burden on already cash- strapped councils such as mine in Barnsley. My council has stepped up to the challenge and delivered for our children, despite having its budget cut by 33% since 2010, and despite the financial burden of covid-19. Without urgent and direct action, the problem will only get worse.