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Martin Martin Gollan, Support and Development manager

For some children in Newcastle and Gateshead the return to school last week will mean from Monday to Friday they can expect a regular hot meal. During the six week summer holidays, the West End Foodbank ran a holiday club which provided food for 40 primary school pupils. Each week the foodbank feeds around 400 school children.

Northumbria University’s Healthy Living Lab recently carried out a nationwide survey of holiday clubs that provide food and other assistance during the summer holidays to children from low income families. 

“The holidays can be a stressful time for many parents” says Professor Greta Defeyter who leads the Healthy Living Lab. During the summer holidays families can spend an additional £30 to £40 per week on food and for those on low incomes their choices can be limited to low cost food, often high in sugar, fat and salt.

In August, Newcastle CVS asked, through the Our Gateshead community website and e-inform bulletin, if voluntary and community groups in Gateshead or Newcastle were providing free hot meals or snacks to tackle holiday hunger among local children.

We didn’t receive a very large response to our question. One response was from the West End Foodbank, with the figures above. Others told us they were providing food but that were responding holiday hunger very specifically within the local area where they are based. These respondents felt certain that they would not be able to cope with the additional demand likely to result from making it more widely known what they were offering.

This is probably a fair assumption. Preliminary findings from the Holiday Club Survey were recently been published and reports a sharp rise in the setting up of new holiday clubs. Although clubs offer a range of activities, including arts and crafts, physical and educational activity and cooking classes, the majority seem principally to be a way for providing free hot or cold meals for children from low income families, who might otherwise go without.

Among the clubs surveyed 91.9% now provide food and 80% had always served food. The majority of clubs are run by community, voluntary sector and faith groups and the highest number of survey responses came from the North East.

Children North East has been at the forefront of highlighting the issue of holiday hunger. This summer Children North East coordinated across Newcastle, Darlington and parts of Durham and North Tyneside, called ‘A Day out, Not a Hand Out’. With a grant from the Big Lottery Fund the project funded holiday schemes in the four areas that were managed by local organisations; Meadow Well Connected, Livin’ North, Groundwork North East and Newcastle City Council Public Health team.

‘A Day out, Not a Hand Out’ is overseen by the North East Child Poverty Commission and Northumbria University will review the project to find out what makes a really effective holiday scheme.

Professor Defeyter said “There is very little research into the benefits of holiday schemes, this is the first large scale project in this country to try to understand the impact of holiday schemes for children’s health, especially a balanced diet, well-being and preparation for going back to school in September.”

Influencing public policy is a key aim for many voluntary sector organisations. Children North East and others have worked with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on School Food and the Holiday Hunger Task Group to influence public policy and develop guidance and support for organisations.

Frank Field MP, who established the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger, has described allowing children to go hungry during the school holidays as a ‘major social evil’. In this Parliamentary he has and has introduced a Private Members Bill which would require local councils to offer programmes providing free meals and activities for children during the school holidays. How the scheme might work should become clearer in January when the bill is due to be debated in Parliament.

Councils, which might be expected to fund as well as offer a summer programme, continue to face cuts to budgets and services. In June it was reported that savings planned this year to social care budgets mean councils will be spending less on social care than in 2010 when the coalition government’s austerity programme began.

The financial position of many local authorities, particularly those in the North raises questions about how Frank Field’s holiday schemes will be paid for. The government provides funding to schools for free meals for all infants in years 1 and 2. Parents of older children can apply to their council for free meals if they receive certain benefits, such as Universal Credit.

Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland estimates that a family with two young children spend approximately £685 a year on school lunches. Provision of free school meals has many benefits for children from poorer households. CPAG in Scotland has campaigned for the Scottish Government to introduce universal free school meals pointing to evidence from pilots in Hull, Durham and Newham that free meals have a ‘significant impact in all areas of children’s schooling’ and helps tackle inequality.  

Meanwhile voluntary organisations are doing what they can with grants and donations. As one respondent told us in reply to our informal holiday hunger survey, ‘we don’t provide anything to tackle holiday hunger because we’re supporting families in poverty all year round’.