According to reports from school leaders across England, children are so hungry that they are eating gummies or hiding in the playground because they cannot afford lunch.
School leaders say the government is abandoning schools to deal with a deepening crisis – a message reinforced by a new school food poverty survey to be released next month by Chefs in Schools, a healthy charity Nutrition training cooks for school kitchens. It shows many schools in England are already seeing a “heartbreaking” surge in hungry children, even before winter and high energy bills force more families to choose between turning on the heat and buying groceries.
A school in Lewisham, south-east London, told the charity of a child who “pretended to be eating from an empty lunchbox” because they were not entitled to free school meals and didn’t want their friends to know there was no food in their homeland .
Community food aid groups also explained observer this week that they are struggling to cope with the new demand from families unable to feed their children. “We’re hearing from kids who are so hungry they’re eating gummy bears at school,” said Naomi Duncan, executive director of Chefs in Schools. “Children come in who haven’t eaten since lunch the day before. The government has to do something.”
In England, all school children are entitled to free school meals from admission to second grade. But beyond that, only children whose parents earn less than £7,400 a year are eligible, according to the Child Poverty Action Group, and 800,000 children living in poverty will miss out.
Many of the schools that Duncan’s charity works with are already plundering stretched budgets to feed hungry children who don’t qualify for free school meals. She wants all children from Universal Credit families to qualify, a position shared by teachers’ unions.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking for our chefs. They actively go out and find the kids hiding in the playground because they think they can’t get a meal and feed them,” she said.
According to Duncan, the survey shows teachers are buying toasters so they can serve breakfast to kids who are too hungry to concentrate. A school in Streatham, south London, had a hardship fund that used to support 50 children but is now supporting 100.
Paul Gosling, President of the National Association of Headteachers Union, said: “The Government knows schools will step in and help when children show up hungry and cold in the morning. But it is not right that it is left to us without additional support.”
He said supporting desperate families in the face of huge energy bills and an unfunded teacher pay rise would push hundreds of schools into deficit. School leaders welcomed the Government’s announcement last week that electricity and gas in schools would be capped at a lower ‘government-backed price’, bringing in £4,000 for a school paying £10,000 a month for energy. But they expressed concern that the cap is only being offered for six months and warned many schools will still end up with much larger bills than they had budgeted for.
Will Teece, head teacher at Brookvale Groby Learning Campus, a secondary school in Leicester, said parents called to ask if the school offered free breakfast clubs or after-school clubs with food.
He warned, “At a time when the need for support for our families is much greater, we are in a much weaker position to be able to provide it.”
Oxford Mutual Aid, a community group that delivers emergency food packages, has had to cut its delivery days because its hundreds of volunteer packers, drivers and organizers are unable to cope with the surge in requests for help, which includes regular referrals from primary schools.
Coordinator Muireann Meehan Speed said: “We are struggling to keep up with demand. Every day I hear how desperate people are. Every day I speak to frightened families who don’t know where to turn. But we cannot do more than we are already doing.”
The group hears daily from locals who have never been able to afford groceries before. “They don’t decide whether they heat or eat, they can’t afford that either,” she said.
Craig Johnson, founder of Launch Foods, a Glasgow charity that provides free lunches to 300 school children a day, said: “People are talking about an approaching crisis. There is already a crisis.”
The charity, which drives silver trucks in primary schools and feeds surplus food to everyone “without stigma”, had to remove its phone number from its website because it received daily calls from people in places like Newcastle, Liverpool and London asking if they could help to feed children in their area.
“I get so frustrated when I tell people we can’t help them,” Johnson said. “There should not be a child in England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland going hungry. It’s just wrong.”
Michelle Dornelly, founder of Children with Voices, a charity that feeds families on three estates in Hackney, east London, said they were struggling to cope with “a different level of hardship”.
Alongside the children, who regularly go to bed hungry, she worries about her growing anxiety. “I worry about kids going to school with no pens, no deodorant, no toothbrushes. It all takes a toll on their self-esteem, and their confidence is really falling.”
Dornelly, who is on universal credit herself, says her charity doesn’t have enough storage space or freezers, and she worries about how much her female volunteers are taking on. “I love what I do, but I’m angry that we have to do this without government help,” she said.
“MPs should come and walk the streets of Hackney and find out what’s going on.”