SHARON HODGSON: No child should go hungry in school holidays

School meals being served. Picture Tony Johnson
School meals being served. Picture Tony Johnson
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Food is an undeniable and essential part of our lives. It helps fuel our minds and bodies, whilst also giving us the vital nutrients to stay healthy, especially for children. This is something I have championed for a long time now.

This first started with my push for universal free school meals in 2008, after a fact-finding mission to Sweden where I saw exactly what could be possible here in the UK, and drove me to lobby the Labour Government of the day to introduce universal free school meals pilots in Durham and Newham.

The evaluation of these pilots clearly showed the impact universal free school meals had on addressing educational and health inequalities, along with social and behavioural problems.

Sadly, these were scrapped by the incoming coalition Government in 2011.

Soon after they commissioned a report into school food, by two entrepreneurs, John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby.

During their investigation, I worked closely with them to see recommendations for better food in our schools, including one for universal free school meals – which they included with the proviso, ‘when funding could be found’.

This was seen sooner than expected in 2014 with the introduction of Universal Infant Free School Meals, when all infant children received a hot and healthy school meal in England, and the evidence on the ground is showing the benefits this policy can have to a child’s education.

Yet, there is a growing problem when it comes to the school holidays when children have little, if sometime any, access to healthy food and we see all the good work done during term time reversed.

Many will argue that what happens when the school gates shut is none of our business, but when families are relying heavily upon food banks in the holidays and teachers reporting children returning from the holidays malnourished, then it is damning that we aren’t doing anything to support these families.

That is why I, as Chair of the School Food APPG, set up the Holiday Hunger Task Group, which since its creation in 2013 has gone from strength to strength, including publishing voluntary guidance to organisations providing holiday activities and also a report which highlighted best practice across the country.

However, there is a lot more still to be done.

Ahead of the Government’s Childhood Obesity Strategy later this year and the Summit4Nutrition at the Rio Olympics this summer, which aims to address hunger domestically and internationally, I will be lobbying the Government to do more, and not waste this opportunity to realise an ambition I hold dearly: that no child goes hungry during the school holidays.