The Government Commits to Supporting Vulnerable Families Over Holidays
Since March 2020, the young people who lead Bite Back 2030 have been calling on the government to extend free school meals. They know that being well fed sets them up for success and they want to ensure the country’s most vulnerable children receive one decent meal a day, all year round. And many, many people agree with them; Bite Back youth Chair Christina’s petition calling on Boris Johnson to take action has been signed over 430,000 times, and the campaign led by footballer Marcus Rashford has generated incredible levels of attention and compassion.
Now, after a series of last minute U-turns, the government has finally put together a package of support that aims to reduce the triple burden of child malnutrition; underweight, hidden hunger and overweight.
Overall, it’s good news. The government has put in place measures that run up to the end of 2021, giving some much-needed certainty and helpful advance notice. For the first time, the many public and voluntary sector organisations involved in providing food support will be able to plan and prepare.
So how does it work? Because of the upcoming government spending review, it splits into two parts.
Covering the period to March 2021, there will be a new Covid Winter Grant Scheme of £170m for local authorities in England. This is effectively a reboot of the oft-referenced £63m provided to councils in June, but now with an explicit expectation that it be used to tackle holiday hunger. The fact that it’s being put through councils is good news; they know their residents, their local delivery infrastructure and can work hand in hand with the voluntary sector to help stretch funds as far as possible.
But it’s worth noting that this funding is expected to meet a wide range of needs; not just of children but all of ‘the hardest-hit families and individuals’, not only food but also bills and other essentials. Providing a decent weekday meal for all children eligible for free school meals will cost around £63m for the three holiday weeks. This fund is going to be under a lot of pressure and councils will have to work very hard to make sure no one falls between the gaps.
The second part, covering April to December 2021, uses a different mechanism. Here, the government has chosen to extend its existing Holiday Activities and Food Programme (HAF). HAF has run at a modest scale in the summer holidays in targeted areas since 2018. It wraps activities, including online learning and sport, around a lunchtime meal for children eligible for free school meals. Today’s announcement pledges £220m to extend HAF to all parts of the country for the Easter, summer and Christmas holidays in 2021. That’s a huge increase on the £9m available for HAF this summer - but it still might not be enough. The devil is in the detail on this one and we’ll be watching with interest to see how it’s rolled out, as well as waiting for the delayed-by-Covid independent evaluation of the 2019 scheme.
Whilst this package represents a big step forward for child health, all these measures expire on 31st December 2021. It’s still not the permanent solution that Bite Back’s young campaigners have been calling for, so we urge the government to extend this vital work. As Christina herself says, ‘child food poverty must be abolished once and for all and we will keep campaigning until this happens’.