Holiday hunger is a human rights issue— Scotland’s children have the right to food

17 July 2017

Our Head of Policy Máire McCormack writes about children from low-income families going hungry during the school holidays.

In just a few weeks’ time, children will be returning from their summer holidays. Many will have had a fun time— days out with their families, the chance to play with friends and take part in a variety of summer activities. They will be arriving back to school energised, eager to learn and looking forward to picking up their school work.

For other families on low incomes, it is a different story: the holidays represent a difficult time. We have heard that some children in receipt of free school meals during term time have arrived back to school in a worse physical and mental condition than when they left, with some of them not having had a decent meal during all that time. Other than the costs of finding meals that would otherwise be provided in schools, there are additional costs, due to an increase in childcare for working parents or costs related to heating and cooking. Some families may have to reduce their working hours – for work that may already be insecure – resulting in a loss of income and less money to spend— not only on essentials, but also on the hidden costs of activities such as treats and travel which are the norm for other families.

Reductions in household income as a result of tax, low wages, insecure work and social security benefit changes have led to both food and fuel poverty, poverty and the rise in food bank use. Holidays tend to exacerbate this.

Many children’s organisations in Scotland have highlighted the detrimental effect that holidays can have on children’s mental and physical wellbeing and how this in turn impacts on their ability to learn— and ultimately their educational attainment. The Trussell Trust also notes that a third of people depending on food banks are children, and observes that diet related health inequalities can have a major impact on their educational attainment, emotional wellbeing and long-term quality of life. They note peaks in food bank use during the holiday periods.

The right to food

The right to food – to be free from hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition – is a fundamental right of all human beings. It calls for food to be available, for people to have access to it and for that food to adequately meet their nutritional needs.

Experiencing food insecurity as a child is a fundamental violation of their rights: it impacts negatively on physical health, mental health and developmental outcomes. It is quite simply unacceptable that children are going hungry during the holidays.

In our submission to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the expert body which monitors implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, our office raised concerns that the UK’s response to the global economic downturn, including the imposition of austerity measures and changes to the welfare system, had resulted in a failure to protect the most disadvantaged children from child poverty, preventing the realisation of their rights under articles 26 and 27 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the right to benefit from social security and the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development ). We also noted that the best interests of the children were not central to the development of these policies and that children’s views were not sought.

In its response to the UK’s report, through its Concluding Observations, the Committee raised concerns about the lack of child food security and noted that some research indicated that currently available programmes may not be responding to child hunger. It urged the UK’s governments:

  • to systematically collect data on food security and nutrition for children in order to identify the root causes of child food insecurity and malnutrition, and
  • to regularly monitor and assess the effectiveness of policies and programmes on child food security and nutrition, including school meal programmes, food banks and programmes addressing infants and young children.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) also noted in 2016 that austerity measures leading to food insecurity were having an unacceptable and heavy toll on those most vulnerable— including children.

Initiatives and solutions

There are many excellent targeted projects in Scotland which aim to address food insecurity and holiday hunger, including the primary schools in Dalmarnock and Ibrox in Glasgow. Both these schools ran summer clubs as part of Children in Scotland’s ‘Food, Families Futures’ (FFF) Programme. I understand that these were extremely popular amongst local families, with interest exceeding capacity by up to 60%. This has recently been expanded to 26 schools across Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire.

There are also other initiatives across Scotland which seek to address holiday hunger. I recently heard about an exciting new summer holiday meals scheme in Dundee. This city served up 19,000 meals to the city’s children last year and has a newly formed charity that will be focusing on child poverty called ‘Dundee Bairns’.

Some of the Aberdeen, Inverclyde and Edinburgh food banks also double up as holiday clubs. As the Manager of the Trussell Trust recently told me: “The motive is to get food in their bellies - they just happen to get a meal at the start and at the end.”

The idea of combining free school entitlement breakfast clubs with school holiday activities is, I feel, a good one, as it helps to take the pressure off family budgets whilst at the same time ensuring access to healthy free food for children and young people. It also helps to reduce stigma. I note that one of the recommendations from the Report of the Independent Working Group on Food Poverty calls on the Scottish Government to prioritise investment in healthy meals at school and also look at the potential for providing healthy meals as part of the school holiday programmes— a recommendation I fully support.

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG)’s work on The Cost of the School Holidays also looked into how school holidays affected low-income families and what it meant for their children’s holiday activities. They were keen to find out how current provision fit with the families’ realities and how such services could better meet their needs.

Key findings included a lack of information, costs for holiday activities and payment options which didn’t work for many families— such as advance payments or having to book online. Issues around inappropriate facilities were also picked up. One key proposal made by CPAG was to adapt the content and delivery of holiday services, both by ensuring co-design of services with local people and through diversifying content for different ages and support needs. Key to this was involving children and young people, both asking their views and involving them in the solutions.

CPAG’s research chimes with, Living is More Important Than Surviving, a recent report my office commissioned with Nourish Scotland and Home-Start UK. This asked children and young people their views about food insecurity – not just with regard to a shortage of food, but around a wider spectrum of experiences including social, financial, geographical and nutritional considerations. Home-Start UK provided excellent support and guidance and were able to work with the children to help them to identify solutions to food insecurity, such as making food more affordable and supporting charitable solutions whilst also recognising the key role played by the state. The children and young people were sensitive and perceptive to how financial restraints could be a barrier to children being able to eat the food they need, and about how that might make their parents feel. They were well aware that money could make a difference to the amount and type of food children ate. What really struck me was how they internalised responsibility for managing food resources to reduce pressure on their parents or carers.

Two areas to highlight

There are two areas I would wish to flag up: understanding the scale of food insecurity, and the importance of listening to children and responding appropriately to their views.

The scale of food insecurity

The recent Innocenti Report Card Building the Future: Children and the Sustainable Development Goals in Rich Countries highlighted that an average of 1 in 8 children in high-income countries faces food insecurity, rising to 1 in 5 in the UK and US.

However, while we know children are going hungry, we don’t fully understand the scale of it. This lack of data has been flagged up by the Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Children’s views

The Committee on the Rights of the Child has also commented that children have been largely excluded from discussions and decision-making on areas that influence food insecurity. Listening to children’s voices about how this affects their lives is crucial to these areas, as our work with Home Start and Nourish illustrates. Children are often able to identify new approaches and suggest ways in which they can be best supported.

Holiday hunger in context

It’s important not to see holiday hunger in isolation, but within the broader context of poverty and food insecurity. The issue is not just about food, but about wider societal structural issues, and we must address this. It is totally unacceptable that children and young people in Scotland are going hungry during the holidays— and at any time.

The Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill currently going through Parliament is a good start and sends out a powerful message that Scotland is serious about tackling child poverty. I am pleased to see statutory interim targets now in the Bill. Having such a review point in place will, in the Scottish Parliament’s Social Security Committee’s words, “add focus and create immediacy.” Our office is also looking forward to working closely with the new independent Poverty and Inequality Commission. Once established, the Commission’s first task will be to provide independent advice to Ministers on the first Child Poverty Delivery Plan, which is due in April 2018.

Holiday hunger and child poverty must be recognised as a significant children’s rights issue in Scotland. A sustained and systematic and human rights based approach at both national and local level is needed to address and eradicate it.