The fight to feed Bristol's school children


By Fin Strathern, Features Writer

Since March, the government has backtracked on its initial refusals to extend free school meal funding into both the summer and Christmas holidays. These refusals have come at a time when the demand for food support has risen sharply due to the pandemic, causing local food charities and the schools they work with to step up their efforts to ensure no child goes hungry. Fin Strathern from Epigram spoke to FareShare South West and E-ACT Academies in Bristol about their efforts and how COVID-19 has impacted them.

With the country gripped in the longest national lockdown we have faced yet, concerns over the provision of food to children living in poverty are once again making headlines. Although £15 weekly vouchers have been available in some regions since the new year began, the latest lockdown has seen the government ‘strongly encouraging’ schools to favour daily or weekly food parcels through catering companies.

When many parents took to social media in mid-January to object to the quality and amount of food their children were receiving in these parcels, the government were quick to condemn the catering companies contracted to supply them. That same day they announced the hasty return of the voucher scheme nationwide, changing their advice from ‘strongly encouraging’ food parcels to listing them as a ‘consideration.’

This has been the third case in a series of highly publicised government U-turns regarding school meal funding during the pandemic.

In June last year, the efforts of Marcus Rashford and other campaigners saw the original £15 weekly voucher scheme extended into the summer holidays 24 hours after its initial rejection by the Prime Minister, ensuring 1.4 million children were still able to access food even with schools closed.

Over the autumn period, Rashford formed the Child Food Poverty Task Force alongside FareShare UK and other major food organisations, such as Tesco, Asda, and even Deliveroo. Once again, after national campaigning and a petition signed by over 1.1 million people, the government went back on its parliamentary vote against extending school meal funding into the Christmas holidays to announce the £170 million Covid Winter Grant Scheme.

Despite these achievements, the Task Force believes there is still ‘a long way to go’ to stop the crisis of child food poverty in Britain. This has created conflict between them and the government, who insists it is doing enough to help.

There are over 4 million children living in relative poverty in the UK, however only 1.4 million qualify for the government’s free school meal support | Epigram / FareShare South West

Here in Bristol, there are a number of organisations working to aid those facing food poverty – The Trussell Trust supports a network of food banks throughout the city, Feeding Bristol aims to drive systemic change to increase food security through community projects, whilst FareShare South West redistributes in-date surplus food that would otherwise have been thrown away to charities and schools in the region.

FareShare South West supports almost 70 schools in Bristol and the surrounding area with charitable food support, they are not connected to the government’s Free School Meal Scheme or the private companies they have contracted for food parcels this lockdown. Epigram contacted them to learn more about their ongoing operations.

As FareShare South West’s Account Manager, Zoe Williams is in charge of looking after member schools and charities, ensuring they receive enough food to meet their needs.

Zoe told us that the amount of support they provide varies from school to school:

‘Some schools have a lot of kids requiring additional food support, so they may need help with a breakfast club, snacks at breaktime, food for after school club, and also extra food parcels for parents to take home. It's only lunch that is covered by the Free School Meal Scheme, and at the moment there is limited statutory support for other meals in the day which parents struggle with.’

The number of children qualifying for government free school meals does not always reflect the needs of a school and its wider community. Many struggling families may not meet the scheme’s requirements of receiving benefits-related support or might not have registered for whatever reason.

‘Unfortunately, the pandemic meant breakfast and after school clubs have had to stop in their normal formats’, she explained when describing the impact COVID-19 has had on FareShare South West’s work with schools, ‘this means the children are now relying heavily on our food parcels for extra food.’

FareShare South West set up the emergency winter campaign #Foodstock2020 partly in response to this. Running from their warehouse in Ashton Gate, they take food on a mass scale and turn them into useable parcels for schools, food banks, and homeless charities. By assembling the parcels at their warehouse – a first for them as a charity – they reduce the workload, in terms of time and resources, for their partners on the frontline fight against food insecurity.

Prior to the pandemic, children like Ayaan and Ben received food support through daily breakfast and after school clubs | Epigram / FareShare South West

When asked about the recent increase in media attention towards child food insecurity, Zoe remarked that ‘it’s fantastic the conversation is finally being had.’

‘There is no doubt that Marcus Rashford has made a real difference to our efforts, he has brought the issue into the public eye which has been amazing – it has definitely inspired more people to support organisations like ours.’

Epigram also spoke to Angus, a volunteer delivery driver at FareShare South West, regarding his experience.

He started volunteering in June 2019, having heard about Bristol’s summer playschemes – several of which FareShare South West supply food to, ensuring that children who usually got free school lunches were still being fed over the holidays.

In response to how his work has changed ever since the March lockdown, Angus said that ‘the demand for food support has been so much bigger.’

‘One community group I used to deliver to in October 2019 initially supported 9 families. By the beginning of lockdown it was 15 and by the end of summer it was 27.’

He continued, ‘a food bank I have been delivering to in Bedminster told me the number of people they support has doubled in the last three months. If we ever tell them we have some extra food, even if it’s nearly expired, they still take it all because they know how much it’s needed.’

Volunteers like Angus are becoming increasingly important in the fight against food insecurity as more families are facing financial hardship | Epigram / FareShare South West

To learn more about Bristol schools’ experiences with child food poverty, Epigram got in touch with Ben Roberts, Regional PE Coordinator to the six E-ACT Academy primary schools in and around Bristol.

Ben, who was also in charge of E-ACT’s breakfast clubs before the pandemic, realised that his pupils’ families were struggling to provide for them once lockdown began as ‘a lot of these kids relied on free school meals.’

‘With the schools shut we contacted FareShare South West about extra food deliveries that parents could collect, as soon as they said they were willing to help we jumped at the opportunity,’ he explained.

Every week of lockdown, Ben fills a minibus with 105 boxes of food from FareShare South West’s depot in Ashton Gate and drops them off for collection at three of E-ACT’s schools in Bristol – a separate team deliver to the other academies in the area. Families that are isolating or struggle to leave the house due to disabilities receive the food straight to their doorstep.

Ben with the last box of the week, ready to deliver to schools throughout Bristol | Epigram / Ben Roberts

As we discussed Rashford’s campaign and the current news spotlight on child food insecurity, he pointed out that ‘media attention has made a lot of families more willing to accept help.’

‘Some parents feel embarrassed by needing to accept support. They have too much pride and refuse any food deliveries. Marcus Rashford and the media have really helped to reduce this stigma and ease parents’ worries.’

In addressing the national issue of food poverty, Ben finished by saying that ‘the silver lining of Covid is that its made people realise children being fed is not guaranteed, even here in the UK. The wider social issue, and something that rarely gets addressed, is why are children better fed and safer in school? Why aren’t things better at home?’

The extent of support needed in Bristol speaks volumes to how serious this issue is on a national level. The percentage of children eligible for free school meals in the South West region is one of the lowest in the country at 15%, yet still organisations like FareShare South West are working tirelessly throughout the lockdown to ensure Bristol’s children are fed.

In the North East, where 24% of children are eligible, the situation is even more serious. As such, whether you are in Bristol or at home this term, consider ways you can get involved to help end child food poverty.

To learn more about Marcus Rashford’s campaign and ways you can get involved, visit the #EndChildFoodPoverty website here.

To stay updated on FareShare South West’s ongoing mission to fight hunger and reduce food waste, or to learn how you could help, visit their website here.

Epigram is incredibly grateful to FareShare South West and the staff at E-ACT Academies who supported this article’s development.

Featured Image: Epigram / FareShare South West