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Coronavirus: Hundreds of new families join free school meals amid child hunger fears

Parents hoping friends will invite them for tea

26 June, 2020 — By Helen Chapman

HUNDREDS of families have signed up for free school meals for the first time since the coronavirus crisis took hold, as fears grow that more children are going hungry. Schools are increasingly seeing parents and carers turn to the service after losing their jobs or seeing wages cut.

Longer queues have been forming at foodbanks and also at a “nappy bank” which supports new parents. It comes on the heels of a government U-turn – in repsonse to a campaign spearheaded by England footballer Marcus Rashford – which means meal vouchers will be issued throughout the summer months. Around 500 new applications for vouchers are now being processed.

Hiri Arunagiri, a teacher at Acland Burghley in Tufnell Park who manages free school meals at the school, said she had seen the numbers go up.

“As the period of uncertainty keeps extending we are getting new applications through,” she added. “There is some stigma in coming forward and requesting free school meals, understandably, but we are hoping to hear from more families so we can provide help if needed. It is critical to keep our families safe and we can talk them through the application process.”

She added: “We have seen the rise in free school meals since the lockdown, partly because some parents have had a change in circumstance or employment.”

Some 8,274 pupils attending Camden schools are now eligible for free school meals, up from 7,743 in March at the beginning of the virus lockdown.

Camden Council, meanwhile, say they have delivered more than 31,000 free school meals during the shutdown and have sent 11,129 food hampers to the homes of pupils.

Dorothea Hackman, from Euston Foodbank, said: “To have queues of 90 outside our door was unbelievable. I do actually wake sleepless because why in a western country with wealth can we crumble like this and allow millions of our children grow up in poverty? It is not necessary.”

She added: “People have been made redundant over the furlough scheme – many of our families who are breadwinners such as Uber drivers have had a dramatic loss in their income. It was such good news that they were continuing vouchers over the summer because it is a real issue. But we know over the school holidays there is a massive increase in demand in families needing additional food because they have to feed their children all day.”

With the lockdown measures easing and pubs and restaurants set to reopen next month, the issue of getting meals on tables remains a challenge across the borough for large numbers.

Like many community groups and charities, the New Journal continues to run its own emergency food delivery operation.

Meanwhile, Little Village, based at Somers Town Community Centre, has seen an increase in demand for its services jump by two-thirds. Similar to a foodbank, it provides free items such as toys, nappies and cots to families with children under the age of five who are living below the breadline.

Sophia Parker, the founder of Little Village, said: “There are a lot of children who are lacking those basic essentials. “We spoke to one mum who was really struggling. She had three kids and was living in a sitting room of a friend’s flat with seven other people with no access to benefits. That is just one example.”

Little Village receives referrals from midwives and health visitors for families who need support.

Ms Parker added: “Families were already living on the edge before lockdown and the lockdown has done has made it even harder for families. Lots are struggling because they are not able to work or have lost their jobs.”

“Parents we are supporting are not living in poverty because of any fault of their own. They are experiencing low wages and benefits not keeping up with the cost of living, combined with insecure housing. We see parents who are looking at money and thinking they have to choose between food or nappies.”

Little Village desperately needs items including nappies, period products and bed clothing. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, the MP for Holborn and St Pancras, welcomed the Government’s decision to continue using food vouchers. He added: “The thought of 1.3million children going hungry this summer was unimaginable”

Hampstead and Kilburn MP Tulip Siddiq, meanwhile, during a debate in the House of Commons last week, spoke about a mother near her home who she said “prays her children get invited to friends’ houses” for dinner.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “We should never be ashamed to listen and I am pleased to announce that we will provide additional funding for a Covid summer food fund to enable children who are eligible for free school meals to claim a six-week voucher. “As we prepare for schools to fully reopen in September we will ensure that no child goes hungry.”

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