School holiday hunger must end now

23rd January 2017

The Grocer Saturday Essay: Matthew Patten, Chief Executive, Mayor’s Fund for London

Food manufacturers, brands and retailers must be thoroughly fed up with being held responsible for food poverty in Britain. After all, we have the highest quality and most efficient food sector in the world offering incredible choice, convenience and price.  Food poverty is not the fault of the industry, it’s the politicians we should blame.

But the fact that so many people go hungry in the world’s 5th largest economy leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.  And who better than the food industry to do something about it?    Food and its production, distribution and consumption have always been at the heart of a healthy society.

Major progress is being made where food companies and brands seize the initiative. The campaign to reduce and redistribute surplus food (not ‘food waste’, please!) is a great example.  Much is still to be done, but it feels like a corner has been turned.

Such positive engagement brings with it many commercial benefits, including marketing content, brand reputation and staff motivation. It also strengthens the communities that businesses operate within, enhancing social cohesion and well-being.

I know this because at the Mayor’s Fund for London, we see what happens at the front-line when people go hungry. Here in our capital city, the greatest in the world, research suggests that 500,000 children struggle for food during the school holidays.

Holiday hunger is a hidden Dickensian scourge.  1.3m children in the UK qualify for free school meals, but there is no provision during school holidays.  That’s 170 days of the year when children from poverty-stricken families have little or no access to healthy food.

Teachers report malnourished children returning to school after the holidays, having fallen behind compared to their more affluent peers. Many will never claw back this disadvantage to fulfil their potential.

Research also tells us that families and communities are affected. Some parents skip meals to feed their children.  Increased household and food bills cause stress and uncertainty, often leading to debt, poor diet and social isolation.

At the Mayor’s Fund for London, we played an important role in securing statutory funding for school food. Now we’ve turned our attention to the holidays.  It’s not acceptable that we acknowledge the need for free school meals, but ignore the plight of hungry children when they are not in school.

We have been piloting a new scheme to help community groups working with children in some of London’s most challenging areas during the holidays to provide healthy food. It’s proved highly successful, providing a healthy meal and more for less than £5 per child per day.

That’s why we launched ‘Kitchen Social’ this week, a new type of campaign to bring together politicians, the food industry, foundations and communities to end holiday hunger.

Over the next three years Kitchen Social will identify and support 330 community organisations across London to provide good things to eat and do during the school holidays.  Additional benefits include learning about healthy eating, new skills, social inclusion and the development of staff, volunteers and local capacity.

Kitchen Social has already gained the support of the Mayor of London, Greater London Authority, many London boroughs and local communities. The Innocent Foundation is supporting the campaign and we hope will be the first in an alliance of food businesses, brands and retailers.  We will share and develop the Kitchen Social model with the rest of the country as part of a broader initiative to end holiday hunger.

We are calling on supermarkets, symbol groups, independent retailers, wholesalers, food manufacturers, processors and brands to join the campaign. You can do this in a number of ways, from supporting a holiday club in your local community, lending your influence to advocate for change, and of course helping to raise profile and funds.

Holiday hunger and its appalling impact on children’s health and learning is not the fault of the food industry. But those of you in the food industry have a great opportunity to help bring it to an end.  In return, I believe your business and brands will be stronger and your people and the consumers they serve healthier. We would love to hear from you.