For children across the country, six weeks off school means six weeks of not having enough to eat – and this year, even the food banks are running out of food. It’s time the perpetual crisis of summer hunger was stopped.

Not being able to access enough nutritious food harms children’s mental health, physical health, education outcomes, and life chances. (Annie Otzen / Getty Images)

Every summer millions of families are filled with dread, forced to confront the reality of six long weeks of worrying and struggling to feed their children. Every summer articles like mine are published on the problem of summer hunger. And every summer we are as unprepared as the last.

Government inaction on summer hunger goes beyond negligence into complicity. For every child that feels the pang of hunger while playing with their friends, for every parent who forgoes dinner to fill their child’s plate, for every child who gets sick from not having enough nutritious food, the government is complicit.

With inflation predicted to rise to thirteen percent this year, the Trades Union Congress has warned of the biggest fall in real wages for 100 years, severely impacting people’s ability to meet their basic needs. Recent analysis from the New Economics Foundation has found forty-eight percent of children are living in households unable to provide them a decent standard of living. Given this, it is unsurprising that the Food Foundation reported one in five households with children have experienced food insecurity in the past six months, a nine percentage point increase from pre-Covid levels.

Yet unlike Covid, during this crisis we aren’t seeing the expansion of mutual aid and independent food provision that took place during the lockdowns. There aren’t thousands of furloughed workers who are able to offer their time to help others, and there isn’t the huge outpouring of funding from private philanthropists that helped plug the gaps left by the government. The safety net provided by so many kind-hearted people is no longer there.

The more established food aid providers are struggling as well. Before the start of the school holidays, food banks predicted demand would surge, warning they may have to turn families away unless the government expanded free school meal eligibility. Food banks have also seen a huge drop in donations as more people struggle to put food on their own tables as the cost of living crisis deepens.

Children are already suffering, and the cost of living crisis will make this summer one of the most concerning for children’s health yet. Not being able to access enough nutritious food harms children’s mental health, physical health, education outcomes, and life chances. Instead of coming back to school next month refreshed and ready to learn, children will be sluggish, tired, and unable to concentrate. No child should return to school after the holiday too hungry to learn, and while this travesty continues, we are failing our children.

The government-funded Holiday Activities and Food programme (HAF) will run again this summer, but there are a number of fundamental problems with the scheme. The programme is intended to provide childcare, healthy meals, and activities for children from low-income families during the holidays. However, the funding only covers four days a week across four weeks of the holiday, equating to just over half of the summer’s thirty weekdays. Even then, funding is patchy, with some areas and projects receiving little or no provision depending on where they are located. Last summer, less than a third of children on free school meals attended HAF, partly due to problems getting to the projects.

Worse still, millions of children at risk of summer hunger will not even be able to access a HAF programme, as funding is only available for children eligible for free school meals. And while the successful campaign led by footballer Marcus Rashford resulted in holiday food vouchers for children on free school meals last summer, this year the value of the vouchers has been quietly slashed by councils, with some authorities scrapping the vouchers altogether.

Instead of taking this issue seriously and putting in measures that would support families to access nutritious food, the government is promoting companies that are offering discounted children’s meals in their ‘Help for Households’ initiative. We should not have to rely on supermarkets, which will push children to eat junk food over holidays, to plug the gaps. It is a fundamentally unserious response and an insult to struggling families.

The real solutions are clear. In the short term, we must provide food vouchers to every family that needs them every school holiday, including children who are not currently eligible for free school meals. Longer term, to combat food insecurity during term time, we must also introduce universal free school meals so that every child can have a nutritious meal every day. Alongside this, there needs to be a serious increase in the price per meal of school meals to match inflation and ensure schools can serve good quality, nutritious food.

While our zombie government refuses to take action on the cost of living crisis, there is hope to be found in the actions of trade unions across the UK. The waves of union action that have taken place over the last few months, in what has been dubbed the ‘hot strike summer’, have led to workers across the country securing inflation-beating pay deals and better conditions. Increasingly, under-unionised areas like hospitality and Amazon are coming together and taking action. As it has always been, the cause of labour is the hope of the world.

Campaigns such as Enough is Enough offer another glimmer of hope. The campaign has demanded an end to food poverty, partly through the introduction of universal free school meals. Organised, democratic responses that build the power and capacity of the people involved like this are the only way we will start to resolve the income inequality in this country and the perpetual crisis of summer hunger.

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