September 25, 2021

‘I didn’t play sport because it burns calories’: Many kids missing out on free school meals


Huge numbers of children are missing out on free school meals due to postcode lotteries and digital poverty, food charities have warned.

Nearly 1.3 million children in England will benefit from Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign to provide free school meal vouchers over the summer.

But children without access to a computer and those who don’t live near a retailer that accepts the vouchers are said to be stranded.

The issue of food inequality among children was highlighted during the coronavirus pandemic when schools were closed due to lockdown measures.

“The Bread and Butter Thing” is a Manchester-based food redistribution charity that caters to families who are unable to benefit from the free school meals scheme because of where they live or their lack of access to the internet.

The charity says the number of retailers which are currently part of the scheme is limited, and many areas of high deprivation are not well-served by major supermarkets.

This makes it difficult for some families to access the scheme.

Mark Game, chief executive of The Bread and Butter Thing, told Sky News: “If you live in an area where there isn’t a Tesco or an Asda or an M&S Foodhall, then you need to get on a bus to go somewhere to spend those vouchers, and there are a lot of people who are really nervous about getting on public transport right now to do that.”

Mark Game has said a lot of families are unable to access the free school meals scheme

Mark Game has said a lot of families are unable to access the free school meals scheme

Mr Game’s charity provides meals for 4,500 families a week who are facing food poverty.

The families pay the charity a nominal fee and in return receive cupboard goods, fruit and vegetables, chilled and frozen parcels.

The charity doesn’t want the voucher system to be exclusive to a select group of major supermarkets and they want all food providers including local greengrocers, corner shops and community hubs to accept them.

They are also worried that the digital nature of the recently extended free school meals voucher system excludes people who don’t have access to the internet.

The vouchers have to be accessed online.

While schools can print the vouchers for children if needed, Mr Game says this leaves out families who do not have access or control over their own food.

Marcus Rashford of Manchester United

Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford helped secure a government U-turn

The Bread and Butter Thing provides meals for 4,500 families a week

The Bread and Butter Thing provides meals for 4,500 families a week

This plea for action coincides with a new campaign from the Food Foundation charity.

Campaigners are calling on the government to respond to a charter drawn up by young people setting out demands to end food inequality.

The campaign report praises 22-year-old England player Rashford for being a “key catalyst for change” after helping to secure a government U-turn.

The government had initially argued against awarding funding for free school meals over the summer break.

But campaigners want holiday provision to be expanded permanently to support all children who normally receive free school meals when schools are closed.

Jani Clarke-Isaac and Rabiya Hussain, both 18, grew up in single-parent households and felt the brunt of food poverty.

Frozen food was largely all they had to survive because money was an issue.

Rabiya Hussain wants more help for children experiencing food poverty

Rabiya Hussain wants more help for children experiencing food poverty

Jani said: “Growing up I don’t remember having any fresh vegetables or fruit.”

Hunger not only impacted Jani’s concentration at school but her choices too.

She often chose not to play high-intensity sport in order to avoid burning up essential calories.

Jani told Sky News: “I love to play sports like rugby and netball but they of course require a lot of energy. I always had to make the choice of ‘do I eat or do I play this sport’ because I knew that if I played a certain sport then I wouldn’t have enough energy to get me through the rest of the day.”

She has seen the problems and disadvantages that food inequality can cause socially, physically and mentally first-hand.

Jani added: “It’s always on your mind because you’re always insecure about it, because you don’t want people to view you as ‘that poor person’ that doesn’t have enough food. So it does take a toll on your mental wellbeing.”

Jani Clarke-Isaac has experienced food poverty

Jani Clarke-Isaac often chose not to play sport in order to avoid burning up calories

Primary school teacher Zane Powles has been delivering 78 packed lunches to children who qualify for free school meals

Teacher walks miles to deliver kids’ free meals

Both Jani and Rabiya now want to help build understanding around the issue.

They’re going to university in September, and in their spare time they work as ambassadors for the Food Foundation charity.

Rabiya wants more help for children who find themselves in a similar situation to her.

Speaking to Sky News she said: “What I want to see being done is healthy food being provided for children who are struggling with food poverty, food inequity, food insecurity, all of them. All of these categories. There are different types of children and people in general who are struggling to get the basic three meals a day. At the moment – even if they are getting basic three meals a day, they aren’t always the healthiest of meals.”

The government says the Summer Food Fund in England will ensure that children eligible for free school meals will continue to have access to support during the summer holidays.

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Filed Under: Essentials