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Schools are increasingly helping the hungry

By Kate Hilpern

PovertyWhile many of us are finalising our shopping lists for the usual mammoth Christmas lunch, other families don’t even have enough to eat and it is increasingly falling on schools to help.

It shouldn’t have come to this.

‘We give free school dinners to children who don’t qualify for free school meals because their parents work but have contacted us to say they have no money that day,’ was one of many such responses from teachers to a recent survey into pupil poverty by the NEU teaching union. ‘I found out last week that a third of my class sleep in their uniforms as they don’t have pyjamas,’ said another teacher, while one commented, ‘We are buying them coats on a scale never seen before.’ And so on.

One school in Great Yarmouth has set up a food bank to help pupils and their families who can’t afford to eat. North Denes Primary now collects food donations to hand out to families and has distributed 30 food parcels in the past five weeks.

Debbie Whiting, headteacher, told the BBC she felt she had to take action when some children were ‘too hungry to learn’ after universal credit delays left them struggling. One parent with two children at the school said when she ran out of money she was ‘at rock bottom and crying for days. I didn’t know what to do. Then the school came to help.’

In other areas, teachers are reported to be feeding pupils out of their own pockets.

These are not isolated incidents, according to the NEU survey. Over half (53 per cent) of the 1,026 teachers in England who responded said they believed more children and young people would go hungry over Christmas, with 40 per cent saying their schools were having to provide extra items for pupils and their families due to growing poverty. Three-quarters of the teachers were from secondary schools and the rest in primaries.

This morning, I was one of many local volunteers to have spent my morning packing food parcels for families in my area who don’t have enough to eat. The amount of food, which comes from local donations including schools, filled an entire church hall. We spent the afternoon delivering these 80 odd parcels, which will we can only hope will get them through the Christmas period. One mother of school aged children cried with relief when we handed it over. We live in a reasonably wealthy area; in poorer areas, the numbers of food parcels required is far larger.

I believe it is an outrage that families are having to face this kind of poverty this Christmas. We live in the world’s sixth richest country and yet the reality for many families is not having enough money for basics, such as food, shoes and adequate clothing. So I think Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, is right to call for urgent change to national policies. ‘This is a Dickensian picture of the poverty that far too many children and their families are having to endure,’ she said.

With nearly half (46 per cent) of teachers saying ‘holiday hunger’ has got worse, none of us should be turning a blind eye. In the meantime, hats off to the admirable schools and their wonderful teachers who have stepped in to help.

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