Belfast Telegraph

Children going hungry and malnourished in the holidays is nothing to sneer about

Patronising poorer parents or treating them with contempt is not the answer, says Fionola Meredith

Three million children in the UK are at risk of hunger and malnutrition in the school holidays, according to a new parliamentary report. The cross-party panel of MPs and peers heard evidence about some children who existed on a diet of crisps and others who were so hungry that they were unable to take part in a football tournament because "their bodies simply gave up".

Free school meals are used as the measure of risk. Add together the one million kids growing up in poverty who are eligible to receive the free meals during term-time, and the two million more whose parents are on low wages but who still live in poverty, and you get that frightening figure of three million.

The situation in Northern Ireland is potentially even worse, given that more children than ever before - almost one in three pupils - are eligible for free school meals, far higher than in the rest of the UK. This number has doubled since 2007 and it's only likely to rise.

So how should we react to this troubling picture? What can we do? The former Tory minister Edwina Currie seems to think we should dismiss the report and its findings out of hand. She doesn't believe it, so it isn't happening. "If 'three million UK children go hungry in the school holidays' then why aren't hospitals full of malnourished kids? Maybe... just not true, eh?" she tweeted.

There was widespread and justifiable outrage over her comments. But by the time I went head-to-head with Currie on the Nolan Show to discuss the issue, her position was even more entrenched. "Hunger? These days?" she scoffed. "What kind of nonsense are these people peddling?"

Now Currie is well-known for her attention-seeking, super-Tory swagger - a particularly unattractive combination of heartlessness and ignorance - so perhaps we should not take too much account of her words. But what concerns me is how many people seem eager to agree with her, and it always follows the same shaming pattern.

Blame falls squarely and self-righteously on the supposedly dumb, feckless parents who - left to their own witless devices over the school holidays- stuff cheap junk food into their kids' mouths, leaving them skinny and malnourished, or fat and malnourished: porked out with rubbish, yet seriously unhealthy.

Even where the default reaction isn't contempt, you get the well-meaning types queuing up to lecture the poor about the benefits of cheap mince and carrots, or how you can feed a family for a week on a single chicken.

I mean, could you get any more patronising?

Sure, the terrible problem of child hunger and malnutrition, caused by extreme poverty, can be exacerbated by difficulty with cooking and shopping on a budget on the part of some parents. And frankly, if you feed your child solely on crisps and fizzy drinks throughout the holidays, that is quite simply neglect.

But the fact is that most poorer parents - the vast majority, in fact - are simply trying to do their best in the most invidious of circumstances. Indeed, they could be going without food themselves in order to provide.

A report in 2015 found that a third of parents had skipped a meal so that their children could eat during the school holidays. That's just one of the reasons why treating them like feckless fools in need of guidance from their more enlightened betters is both offensive and wrong.

Instead of criticising, dismissing and lecturing, let's look at the reality for families in this situation.

With free lunches and breakfast clubs, that's one or maybe two decent nutritious meals in a poor child's belly.

Come the long summer break, that vital support is gone. Families on the breadline who are just about getting by in term-time suddenly find themselves adrift.

This is a real crisis. The Trussell Trust, Britain's biggest network of food banks, reported that the number of people seeking help because they could not afford to buy food for their children during school holidays almost doubled in the 2016 summer break when compared with the previous year.

And the crisis isn't over when the kids return to school and start back on the free school meals. Lengthy episodes of impoverished diet exacerbates the gap between well-off children and their impoverished counterparts, reducing their chances still further.

The parliamentary report recommends that money raised from the tax on sugary drinks should be used to support schemes aimed at feeding hungry children during the holidays. Well, at least it's a plan.

What else are we going to do, turn our backs and pretend this calamity isn't happening?

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