While undertaking research in food banks in Northwest England, Dr Kingsley Purdam and colleagues witnessed the ‘shocking’ sight of children visiting with their parents.
- It is likely that much of the food insecurity in the UK is hidden – particularly amongst families.
- Given the predicted increase in child poverty, it is likely that we will see more children in food banks in the future in the UK.
- A lack of food can impact children in many ways – including their ability to concentrate in school and their long-term health in adult life.
In the last six months the Trussell Trust has given out over half a million food parcels of which more than 200,000 were given to children, many of whom were school age.
In addition to Trussell Trust food banks, there are many more often run informally by religious organisations and community groups. In our ongoing research in NW England we identified three times more independent food banks than Trussell Trust ones.
In the UK food banks have become the last line of support for many families. They provide emergency food parcels and also toiletries such as toothpaste, toilet rolls, sanitary products and nappies. Many also provide clothes.
To some extent it depends on what has been donated by the public and businesses, such as surplus food from supermarkets. Food banks often also provide advice, links to the other support services as well as someone to talk to of course. Some food banks also provide extra food parcels for local school pupils in economically deprived areas.
It is likely that much of the food insecurity in the UK is hidden particularly amongst families. An estimated four million children live below the official poverty line in the UK even though a majority of these children live in households where at least one adult is in employment. It has been widely reported how some teachers have been providing food and dinner money for those children who have no food. The issue of food insecurity amongst children has also been highlighted by a campaign to help children who rely on free school meals to eat during the school holidays.
In every food bank we visited we observed children accompanying their parents to collect food parcels. The children we observed would just wait quietly. It is difficult to imagine what the children were thinking, but it is clear their parents were in desperate need.
Often the food bank volunteers would find something to give to the children and the food parcel would be made up specifically to include food for children such as breakfast cereal. At Christmas time there are usually some donated toys and chocolates to give out. Whilst a comfort, this essential help is, of course, only a short-term fix.
A lack of food can impact on a children’s ability to concentrate in school but can also impact on their long-term health in adult life. This begins with nutrition during pregnancy. Around eight per cent of babies born in the UK are low weight (under 2.5kg) and this is thought, in part, to be linked to economic deprivation.
Visiting a food bank is not a particularly a joyful experience even at Christmas. Our research identified how many parents had put off going because of embarrassment and shame. One mother aged 34 who we interviewed commented: ‘It throws your pride out of the window … I am doing it for my kids, I am not going to make my kids suffer just because of my pride’.
A father of two children commented on how uncomfortable he felt: ‘I was nervous coming here, I thought I had done something wrong … having to ask for food your ego takes a battering’.
Another 33 year old mother who had two children described how her friend and her children had come around for tea and had ‘brought the food to share with her’ as she could not afford to provide food for all of them. We also encountered grandparents collecting for food parcels to help their grown up children and their grandchildren.
Many parents we spoke to did not want to be seen having to rely on a food bank. One mother commented how she feared that if anyone saw her they might reported her to social services and that she might lose her children if she was seen as not being able to afford to feed them.
Families were facing difficult choices. People on low incomes can face higher costs for everyday essential goods and services. Many parents had turned to the food bank as a last resort. In one corner shop close by to the food bank there was a prominent hand written sign on the door which read ‘Please Do Not!! Ask For Credit Under Any Circumstances!.
As one mother commented: ‘We need to keep the house warm and have just had to buy some new school uniform and that meant cutting down on something else’. Evidence also suggests that many parents are skipping meals to make sure their children have enough to eat. This can put their own health at risk. One ten-year old child we spoke to highlighted how she was worried about her mother not eating. She said: ‘We say to my mum make sure you eat but she says she’s not hungry … she’s just making sure we eat first’.
Financial insecurity can affect children’s wellbeing. Research by Step Change has found that more than half of children aged between 10 and 17 years old living in households with problem debts reported feeling worried about their family’s financial situation.
Visiting a food bank is not free, there is a cost – it can impact on your self-esteem and pride. At Christmas many food banks provide extra food parcels to cover the holidays. But food banks can only provide a temporary fix and are no place for children. Given the predicted increase in child poverty, it is likely that we will see more children in food banks in the future in the UK.
Unlike Oliver Twist, the children we have encountered in food banks were not asking for ‘more’ – they just seemed happy to have something.