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The fight to feed Bristol's school children

Charities and schools in Bristol are trying to tackle rising child food poverty as the pandemic continues. Fin Strathern spoke to them about their efforts and how COVID-19 has affected them.

By Fin Strathern, Investigations Correspondent

With concerns over child food poverty once again making national headlines, investigations correspondent Fin Strathern explored how charities and schools in the South West are ensuring children get enough to eat during the winter lockdown.

UK parents took to social media this week to protest the quality of food their children have been receiving in free school meal ‘lunch parcels’ from government-contracted catering companies.

The parcels, designed to replace the £15 weekly free school meal vouchers during the latest lockdown, have since been scrapped by the Department of Education.

Online government guidance on the lunch parcels has changed from saying they are “strongly encouraged” 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.

Last June, the efforts of Marcus Rashford and other campaigners saw the £15 weekly voucher scheme extended into the summer holidays 24 hours after its initial rejection by the Prime Minister.

Doing so ensured 1.4 million children in Britain maintained reliable access to food after schools closed for the summer.

Over autumn, Rashford formed the Child Food Poverty Task Force with food charity group FareShare UK and major supermarket chains including Tesco, Sainsburys, and Asda.

A second U-turn came in November, after the government initially decided not to extend free school meals into the Christmas holidays.

After an online petition was signed by more than 1.1 million people, the government announced the £170 million Covid Winter Grant Scheme, reversing this decision.

Despite these U-turns, 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 the Task Force and the government, who insists it is doing enough to help.

More than 4 million children live in relative poverty in the UK, but only 1.4 million qualify for the government’s free school meal support | Epigram / FareShare South West

The politicisation of free school meals has come at a time when demand for food support is on the rise, with food charities and schools across the country stepping up efforts to support families this lockdown.

In Bristol, organisations like The Trussell Trust and Feeding Bristol support food banks and community projects aimed at increasing food security.

Others, like FareShare South West, redistribute in-date surplus food that would otherwise be thrown away to charities and schools in the region.

FareShare South West supports almost 70 schools in Bristol and the surrounding area with food support.

Zoe Williams, FareShare South West’s account manager, looks after member schools and charities, ensuring they receive enough food to meet their needs. She said 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,” she said.

“It's only lunch that is covered by the government’s 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 that qualify for free school meals does not always reflect the needs of a school and its wider community.

Some families may be struggling but do not meet the scheme’s requirements of receiving benefits-related support. Others may not have registered for a number of reasons.

“Unfortunately, the pandemic means breakfast and after school clubs have had to stop in their normal formats. This means that many children are now relying heavily on our food parcels for extra food.”

FareShare South West set up its emergency winter campaign, #Foodstock2020, in response to the lockdown.

Running from their warehouse in Ashton Gate, they take large amounts of surplus food and turn it into useable parcels for schools, food banks, and homeless charities.

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

Zoe is glad that increased media attention towards child food poverty is forcing the British public to wake up to the situation.

“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.”

Others have seen first-hand the impact the pandemic has had on children’s access to food.

Angus started volunteering as a delivery driver with FareShare South West in June 2019.

He says the demand for food support has increased substantially since he started, especially since March 2020.

“One community group I used to deliver to in October 2019 initially supported nine families. By the beginning of lockdown it was fifteen and by the end of summer it was twenty seven,” he explained.

“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

More schools in Bristol have been turning to charities like FareShare South West to help them feed students during the pandemic.

E-ACT Academies runs six primary schools in and around Bristol. Ben Roberts was in charge of these schools’ breakfast clubs before the pandemic.

He realised that families were struggling to feed their children when the first lockdown began as a lot of them 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 said.

Every week since the pandemic began, Ben has filled a minibus with 105 boxes of food from FareShare’s depot in Ashton Gate and dropped them off for collection at three of E-ACT’s schools in Bristol.

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

Turning to Rashford’s campaign and the current spotlight on child food insecurity, Ben 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.”

“The silver lining of Covid is that it has 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 raises concerns over the seriousness of child food poverty at the national level.

The percentage of children eligible for free school meals in the South West, 15 percent, is one of the lowest in the country, yet still organisations like FareShare South West and its volunteers are working tirelessly throughout the lockdown to ensure Bristol’s children are fed.

In the North East, where 24 percent of children are eligible, the situation is even more serious.

Whether you are in Bristol or at home this term, consider some of the 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 grateful to FareShare South West and the staff at E-ACT Academies who supported this article’s development.

Featured Image: Epigram / FareShare South West