Speakers: Sumi Rabindrakumar, Trussell Trust; Ros McNeil, National Education Union; Pandora Haydon, The Food Foundation
12 June 2019
All-Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood
‘Hungry Children at Home and at School’
Chair: Steve McCabe MP
Speakers: Sumi Rabindrakumar, Head of Policy and Research, Trussell Trust; Ros McNeil (Assistant General Secretary – Equality, Social Justice & international – National Education Union; Pandora Haydon, The Food Foundation
Chair’s Opening Remarks:
Good evening everybody and welcome to this, the 44th meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood.
Many people find it hard to accept that many children in this country are going hungry. This was a ‘third world’ problem, not something happening in the rich, developed West.
Unfortunately, we now know that this is not the case. The evidence is in, and the problem seems to be getting worse.
I could say a lot about this. I could talk about the impact of austerity, for instance, but that is not why we are here this evening.
We have three speakers who can report on the reality of hungry children at home and in school.
Sumi Rabindrakumar, The Trussell Trust
At the Trussell Trust we have 427 food banks that deliver food to over 1200 distribution centres, getting parcels to people who need them.
It is appalling that we have families and children going hungry today. We hope that we live in a compassionate society, with structures like the NHS and a benefits system which is meant to give support when people need it most – and yet what we see in Trussell Trust food banks shows that many families are being failed. In the last financial year we gave out 1.6 million 3 day emergency food parcels to people in crisis, and over half a million of those went to children.
It’s a shocking statistic and it’s a figure that’s gone up year on year over the last five years, and it’s why a lot of food banks in our network have moved to deliver additional services, particularly things like holiday clubs during school holidays. What’s important to remember is that Trussell Trust food banks are only part of the picture. While our food banks make up two thirds of all food banks, there are other forms of emergency provision and community initiatives.
It’s also important to remember that food banks are only the tip of the iceberg. Research a couple of years ago in partnership with the University of Oxford found that households that used food banks are likely to have gone hungry multiple times over multiple months before getting help from the food bank. Once they are presenting at a food bank, that’s a time of ultimate crisis and there is potentially a long period of time where the family and children have gone hungry before then.
One of the things that we are keen to stress in the UK is that it is not about food: it is about incomes. It is about the cost of living, and if we want to reduce the problem of hunger what we need to do is build up the financial resilience of families. What we see is that charities, food banks, teachers in schools and so on, are stepping into the breach, but what we say in the Trussell Trust is that we don’t want to be the mainstream. We don’t want to be institutionalised. If we think about the society that we live in, we don’t think that provision of food banks is the correct safety net. We think that there should be other forms of provision, and so one of the key parts of what the Trust wants to do is not just focus on the emergency food provision, but to look at what those alternatives should look like in the long term.
The Government has to be part of the debate, because so much of the problem is as a result of policy decisions that they have made, particularly around the design and implementation of the benefits system, e.g. universal credit, benefit sanctions and so on. Research has shown just what a massive part that plays in terms of triggering a referral to a food bank. At the moment we are running a “Five weeks is too long” campaign, around the minimum five week wait that claimants have before getting their first universal credit payment. We think that this is a really critical problem – not the only issue but it is something that is happening right now as more and more families move on to universal credit. We’re very passionate about trying to get the Government to take some action on this.
The other important issue is about low income. People have to tick a box to say whether their visit is triggered by a benefit claim, or a delay, or something else like not enough income.
We are mindful of the fact that businesses also have a role to play because this is as much about providing secure work that pays properly as it is about anything else.
Ros McNeil, NEU
Our union, the National Education Union, is a big union with 500,000 members. We were formerly the National Union of Teachers but we changed name when we merged with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, so now we’re the NEU. We represent teachers, support staff and school leaders. We’re very interested in social policy as well as educational policy, and we’re interested in children’s lives as well as all the other issues that affect members within our union.
So we’re here to talk about hunger. It’s important to remember that one in every 3 children in this country is under the poverty line. That is obviously an injustice and human rights catastrophe, but that volume of children being deprived is also a huge issue for public services – for education, health and social care. That hunger obviously has ongoing physical and mental effects on children all the time they’re at school. It affects whether they can concentrate, whether they feel cold, whether they can engage successfully and positively with their peers, it affects their relationships with friends, their ability to behave. It also has the element of embarrassment, of shame, of stigma, with children understanding that others aren’t hungry.
Children are also worried and anxious about their mums because they are aware of the problem and they know what is or isn’t in the fridge. So are they going to concentrate on tests and maths and so on? No – it’s going to impair that ability. We don’t want to stereotype these children and pretend that they’re all the same, they are often very resourceful – but without doubt hunger has a major effect.
I am sometimes asked by journalists how teachers know when children are hungry. Teachers report that children are saying that they are hungry and asking for food and enquiring when the fruit will be arriving and so on. Children are desperate to know that they can get some extra food during the school day. That’s obviously wholly inappropriate for those children, but also public servants shouldn’t be put in the position of having to witness children not having what they need to be safe, happy, healthy and to engage with education.
We can all give horror stories. In our latest survey I was shocked to hear from a Head Teacher that two children from the same family were sick with upset stomachs and it turned out to be as a result of eating the kidney beans stuck onto a Harvest Festival wall chart. That’s how hungry they had been.
It’s a feature now in the life of a school day.
What should proper, credible policy be? It’s about income. It’s about family income being too low. I have contradictory things in my head the whole time but actually we have to be clear that we can’t close the inequality gap just through education policy. We cannot expect schools and education policy to be the answer to social justice.
We need economic and social policy to be transformative. We know that education can be transformative, and what do we want education to do in the 21st century? Let’s perhaps consider making education the hub of the services that children and families need. Already many Head Teachers, without planning and resources, are offering debt advice, organising funerals, giving out extra food, putting out emergency clothes, opening their doors and so on. A Head Teacher in Portsmouth last year opened on Christmas Day because he knew he wouldn’t enjoy his Christmas knowing how many of his kids were hungry. So instead of that being an emergency response, let’s accept that those services could in fact all be positioned through the school. At the moment it’s happening because schools are the only service left standing. We’ve taken apart social services, the youth service, children’s centres and Sure Start, so in an unauthorised way schools are the only people left in children’s and families’ lives so they are having to provide all that emergency relief.
I suggest that we structure community schools to be the hub at the heart of the community, and particularly primary schools who can do it very well because of their daily access to parents. Or, if we don’t want to do that, let’s argue that we need to reinstate all the services – youth workers, educational psychologists, and so on, and enough workers to support families.
I think it’s contradictory but it’s both – we need social and economic policy that closes the inequality gap and raises wages without penalising families through Universal Credit and other very retrograde interventions, but also let’s have real high ambitions for education as a transformative service. Teachers go into teaching because they love their subject but also because they believe in the next generation.
So schools can be very much part of the picture, but I do have to briefly also mention school funding cuts. Real term cuts have affected every school and what is tormenting Head Teachers is the little bit of money that they were able to hang onto, which was the lifeline for supporting vulnerable families, perhaps by employing an outreach worker or funding free school meals over the holidays – that’s all now going. There is no way to manage your budget and to hold onto that, and to provide the core services.
They can’t believe that the cuts keep coming. They see the deprivation rising in the community and they want to provide services to alleviate the hardship, and yet the budget just doesn’t balance. Somebody has to answer that. Don’t believe people who say that more money is going into education. It’s hopeful though that all the candidates in the current Conservative Leadership election are all talking about school funding.
We want a proactive multi-departmental strategy to reduce child poverty, but I do think that education can be a big part of the answer.
Pandora Haydon, The Food Foundation
The Food Foundation is an independent food policy think tank and we’ve been working with our partners for just over a year to co-ordinate the Children’s Future Food Enquiry. The final report was published two months ago, in April 2019.
I’m going to talk about food insecurity as well as hunger. The enquiry was the first attempt to talk systematically to children and young people all over the country about their experience of food insecurity. It was led by a cross-parliamentary and civil society committee, co-chaired by Dr. Philippa Whitford, and worked in tandem with a panel of 15 young food “ambassadors” aged between 10 and 20.
We commissioned a health review of the consequences of children’s food insecurity and also we also ran a policy review. This turned up interesting results because we compared the cost of buying food in accordance with “Eatwell” guidelines with Government data on household incomes, and we found that there are roughly 3.7 million children in the UK who are living in households where a healthy diet – as defined by the Government – is unaffordable.
We took evidence from experts, academics, people with lived experience of food insecurity, frontline staff, social workers, teachers, GPs, etc. We held evidence sessions and, most importantly, we ran workshops for about 400 children across the country and compiled their responses.
Dame Emma Thompson came on board as our ambassador last year and we ran launch events to draw attention to the Enquiry’s recommendations.
In terms of what we found, we heard lots of anecdotal evidence and lots of shocking facts and figures, and basically we learned that the food environments in early years, in nurseries and at home, were characterised by problems that were toxic for children’s health.
The committee put together a set of recommendations for the report but we also worked with the panel of young ambassadors to create the children’s food charter. This is their set of policy recommendations for where they would like to see changes, and includes for example “Stop the stigma” which is about destigmatising food insecurity. The area being prioritised, though, is the idea of a Children’s Food Watchdog. It was very striking how giant the gulf is between the standards that are supposedly in place and what children told us about how things actually are.
After the launch Nadhim Zahawi, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families, looked at the report carefully and we’re currently working with the Department of Education and the Minister on establishing the Watchdog. So we’re hoping to keep the momentum going but we need anybody who is supportive of this kind of agenda to keep talking and to keep up the pressure.
Questions and Comments:
Paul Aagaard, Recipe for Change: I run a company called Recipe for Change which helps schools improve their lunchtime provision. The harsh reality in many schools is that children have a rushed and unpleasant experience at lunchtime, with lots of queuing, untrained staff and wasted time. Uptake of school meals is only 43% – way below the breakeven point – but not that surprising when the experience is so rushed and manic. It’s toxic and affects children’s learning according to teachers I have surveyed. I try to change that by putting restaurants into schools, and by training the staff appropriately.
Jillian Pitt: I take your point that the lunchtime experience can be negative, but my experience is a mixed bag and I’ve seen really good effort from Head Teachers, Technology Teachers and Midday Supervisors to turn around the lunchtime culture in their schools. Where we have been able to help schools with their “whole school food policy” the results have been very positive. It’s very easy to demonise school dinners but the situation is changing, with more trained chefs and provision around the Eatwell guides. There’s a lot of good out there but it’s patchy.
Emma Mortoo, School-Home Support: We support families with disadvantaged children and our practitioners work the families and the schools. We share these concerns and it’s scandalous; as well as cuts to school budgets, the threshold for social care is so high now and Head Teachers are dealing with enormous pressures. Our practitioners are supporting families on issues that are increasingly coming into schools because there is nowhere else for them to go, and it does feel very “front line” type work. If there is anything we can do to support the idea that services can improve schools, because I think that seems to be happening in an ad hoc way, and it feels like a very good idea. Increasing cuts to school budgets just feels intolerable.
Ros McNeil: There are many different ways we could approach school meals – do we expect schools to go it alone and do their own thing, or should we be trying to share best practice and learn from each other? Whatever we do does require funding, capacity and will (values, attitudes and strategy) but I don’t think the model that every school independently does its own thing will ever work. Knowledge is very sticky and doesn’t pass and move around automatically. We do need a strategy to ensure that healthy food, physical exercise and wellbeing is improved. I think it connects to how we measure schools – at the moment we just measure schools in numbers around a narrow range and if you do that you just send out a message that that is what matters. Physical and psychological wellbeing, however, has to underpin everything.
Pandora Haydon: There are schools doing well (on school meals) and schools doing less well and that’s why a national monitoring service of some kind is important. When we were putting our recommendations together it seemed that one of the first things we could do was get a message to teachers to say “please pay attention to school food standards” but we were very keen that the obligation to uphold those standards doesn’t fall exclusively to teachers.
Anka Johnson, The Caroline Walker Trust: There was a consultation on what Ofsted is supposed to do and anything connected with health or physical wellbeing has been taken out. A watchdog to control all this is very very necessary.
Ros McNeil: Ofsted is driving what schools do very significantly. I don’t think Ofsted is the answer – I think Ofsted is the problem in driving very narrow practice and making heads feel that they have to jump through hoops because the stakes attached are so high. Schools have to be accountable, of course, but we need a far more intelligent and modern system of school evaluation. There are countries around the world doing a far better job and the most successful of them evaluation education across a much wider set of indicators, and health, wellbeing and physical activity are all part of that. Remember the “Every Child Matters” framework? I’ve yet to find anyone who didn’t think it was brilliant, because it required all public services to work together across five wonderful outcomes – including being healthy and achieving. So build in that expectation, and then monitor it.
Steve McCabe: Tell me about food banks – generally, do people have choice in what they get?
Sumi Rabindrakumar: Because it is a donation-led service and because recipients can have restrictions in terms of cooking facilities, there are sometimes limits. We try hard to match dietary requirements and to roll out fresh food as well as dried and tinned. We want people to have dignity and make choices for themselves.
Beth Robertson, Barnardo’s: Because of the huge cuts in local services, since 2010 demand for children’s services has doubled. The LGA says that every day 100,000 children come to children’s services and yet there is a huge shortfall in funding. We talk to teachers all the time who tell us that they are effectively becoming social workers, and we have parents who tell us that the services that were there when their first child was born are not there for their second.
Paul Aagaard, Recipe for Change: Going back to Ofsted, a healthy eating report produced by them last year made some really useful points and solutions. One point was the disparity between what parents want and what they get. What they get is the menu but what they want is to know is whether their child is eating. The other disparity is around policy. Parents want help with their healthy eating. In Leeds they reduced obesity and one of the key factors was around parents being authoritative in giving choices. Schools could easily deliver these takeaway messages, through teachers.
Catherine Hutchinson, Waltham Forest: Who do you suggest would train these teachers?
Paul Aagaard: I don’t think they need training – they just need information and advice, e.g. the authoritative parenting techniques that worked well in Leeds.
Catherine Hutchinson, Waltham Forest: I work with a lot with schools and teachers. I hear them saying “I’m already a social worker and replacement parent and now I have to be a nutritionist as well …. ?”
Paul Aagaard: There are resources available to improve relationships with food, such as Flavour School, who have a multi-sensory education programme.
Steve McCabe: It reminds me of the press story a few weeks ago about the lady who was smuggling vegetables into children’s meals by liquidising and blending them. I guess the point is really is that parents want tangible, practical advice rather than policies. And the other thing is, following Ros’s point, is recognising that there is a danger of overloading teachers to the extent that the actual basic teaching is swamped. How do we reconcile these things?
Pandora Haydon: If you’re dealing with hunger and food insecurity what you need is a whole systems approach, so you do need school food standards to be upheld, you do need teachers to take the right approach with children, you do need more money to be spent on fruit and vegetables . . . you need people to have more time, for children to be in an appropriate healthy food environment. All the elements need to work together in order to deliver sustainable change in how much food and what kind of food children have access to. You would hope that the National Food Strategy would deliver a series of changes across the system so that these things could be delivered.
Paula Lochrie, Oxfordshire County Council: It’s very much about Early Years as well. We do have Ofsted going into our practitioners and they do comment on nutrition in pre-schools. The pre-schools need to work with parents, supporting them prior to the school age.
Steve McCabe: Yes, that would make sense.
Sumi Rabindrakumar: One of the things that struck me is that we have a slight parallel between volunteer workers and teachers. We often have to set expectations around volunteer workers, emphasising that they are volunteers and not fully trained and resourced workers. I think that same argument applies to teachers and we cannot expect teachers to be and do everything.
Steve McCabe: Ros, you started by saying that maybe we should just acknowledge that this is where schools are heading and I can see why that’s tempting, but there will be pressure from your members and others to say, hang on a second . . . How do you think it’s going to go?
Ros McNeil: I think we have to recognise that different disciplines have different strengths and we need to fully resource all the different disciplines. Dieticians and nutritionists are skilled professionals and we need them to inform practice, so we need those people in post. We need school nurses and educational psychologists; we need all of those services to exist in a team around the child. These are good professional jobs so there also should also be a gain to the Exchequer. We’re not saying that teachers stand in front of a class a just deliver a curriculum: you teach based on relationships, particularly in Early Years where you have to identify the needs of the child and where other specialists might be needed. You also need pastoral systems within the school. In terms of where schools can help alleviate poverty we need to discuss what works best – is it having parental engagement workers or is it having a partnership with Barnardo’s? We have so many different models springing up, which have been an emergency ad hoc response to the disappearance of statutory services. We have to recognise that statutory services are accountable in a way that then charities are part of the mix, but we never discussed as a society that we do take away statutory services and move towards NGOs. That’s quite significant politically I think. So we need services that support children and we want innovation. I think it’s about teams working together and the thing that scares me at the moment is hearing from heads that they are having to cut pastoral services in their schools. That is so self-defeating and harmful. Teachers know their children but they need to be able to call in support from elsewhere when necessary.
We also have to remember that poverty is policy-responsive. We know the policies that reduce and increase poverty, and we should be saying that to all MPs, and campaign around these issues with communities because communities want investment.
Steve McCabe: We have about ten minutes left so let’s hear from some people who haven’t yet spoken.
Deborah Albon, University of Roehampton: Food is also about our sense of identity, social relationships and so on. People living in food insecurity don’t have those kind of choices so there’s a marginalisation going on beyond just filling stomachs. I want to make two points. First of all, food inequalities also occur within families and there has been interesting research around this, looking at gender issues and so on. The second point is a resource issue. Sumi touched on it talking about cooking facilities and equipment. It’s all very well saying “buy the cheaper cut of meat and slow cook it” but this is not going to always be possible. There’s also an issue around school kitchens and the demise of some school kitchens and this impacts on the ability to teach children to cook.
Magdalene Adenaike, Music Relief: We’re not a food organisation but we see a lot of young people in adolescence. They come in regularly – sometimes five days a week – and they are often eating the same food over and over again. What should we be doing? talking to the parents? talking to the young people? Is it ok for them to eat the same food all the time?
Alison Murray, University of Roehampton: Listening to all the speakers, we need a more holistic approach at the macro level. Let’s have another subject in the national curriculum about healthy eating to educate everyone.
Kristy Howells, Canterbury Christchurch University: I was going to suggest a similar thing. We need a separate subject. Diet and nutrition has now disappeared from the curriculum. We’ve noticed that this year’s first years at university had to be taught to cook as they hadn’t learned, and this is our next generation of teachers. So, you can’t rely on teachers knowing about nutrition and having a good understanding of food. So we need food, diet, nutrition as a separate subject in its own right to help with health and wellbeing.
Claudia Singer, Infant & Toddler Forum: Just to let you know, we already provide a lot of resources for healthcare professionals, providers, parents: portion sizes for children and so on. We’re working with Early Years and schools already, helping them to manage mealtimes etc. Visit the Infant and Toddler Forum website to download them.
After some further discussion, questions and comments, the meeting closed at 7.15 pm.