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Kids skimping on meals to buy food for hungry friends, youth workers warn

Exclusive: Youth workers have spoken of ‘a failure of society’ as kids take on responsibility for feeding friends

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Caroline Molloy
23 August 2022, 9.40am

Some 800,000 kids who live in poverty in England do not qualify for free school meals


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Schoolchildren in the UK are sacrificing proper meals to buy junk food to share with friends who cannot afford to eat, openDemocracy can reveal.

When youth worker Stephen Stark asks kids at the Community Court Yard in Northampton what they’ve had for lunch at school, they report having to choose “sharing foods”, such as chips or pizza, to ensure their friends can eat something.

“It’s a conscious decision – you can’t share a bowl of pasta, but you can share a bit of pizza, you can share a bowl of chips,” Stark told openDemocracy. “They’re not describing nutritious meals… it’s children helping children.

“Of course there’s a natural thing for young people to help each other out, but it’s not children’s responsibility to feed children. It’s a failure of society.”

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In May, Child Poverty Action Group revealed that 800,000 children in England who live in poverty do not qualify for income-related free school meals. The thresholds have not kept pace with inflation, meaning children over seven whose families earn more than £7,400 a year (after tax and before benefits) do not meet the criteria.

Stark, whose centre is open to 11-16-year-olds, said: “Eighty per cent of young people who are coming into our building at the moment are hungry. And that proportion has probably doubled over the past, I’d say, nine months.”

Stark’s findings were echoed by a school chaplain, who did not want to be named, who observes lunch times at a high school in a deprived part of the West Midlands.

The chaplain told openDemocracy that she has seen children buying food that can be shared with friends who have less or nothing, or bringing extra snacks – usually sweet foods – in their packed lunches for them.

She said she had been “really shocked at how little many kids ate – and I was not convinced it was because they didn’t want much to eat but was more because they couldn’t afford to buy more to eat.

In my friend group, about half can’t eat food when we go out, so people buy lunch for their friends

A food volunteer in Warrington told food charity Feeding Britain that they are “starting to see children, who narrowly miss the [free school meals] criteria, sharing lunches with other children (as they haven’t been able to bring their own food in), not eating, or resorting to eating ‘rubbish’ food.’”

This is not just the case in the poorest parts of the country. Katie* lives in a relatively affluent Cotswolds town. Despite her son’s choices being limited by his £2.40 free school meal allowance, she said: “He doesn’t eat his cake because he gives it to one of his friends who never has enough food and she is always happy to receive it.

“He does like to share his food even when he doesn’t have enough… he’s aware his friends aren’t having enough.”

openDemocracy spoke to a number of parents across the country who reported that their children would, as one parent, Carmen*, put it “buy extra items for friends so that they would have enough to eat”.

This is happening outside the school canteen, too.

“In my friend group, I’d say about half of them can’t eat food when we go out, so you see people buying lunch for their friends,” a Scottish 15-year-old told the Aberlour children’s charity in May. “They come to lunch with me… we go to Greggs and because I’ve got like £3 or £3.50 to spend, I’ll get two Yum Yums and a sausage roll and I’ll give them the Yum Yums, just because they don’t get any food anyway.”

Hackney Quest Youth worker Luke Billingham told openDemocracy he regularly sees children who have a little more money “tending to buy more food and tending to share” with those in “real need”.

The kids “know what it means when different mates are asking to share, understanding where for some people they’re just being cheeky and they like having chips, and where for other kids there’s a real need there,” Billingham said. “There’s an implicit or explicit awareness of who’s got the broadest shoulders, financially – who’s got a bit of money to spare – and of the need to share.”

‘Stealing biscuits and crisps’

Some secondary schools do, on a discretionary basis, offer credit for a meal or two to a child who goes to the school office to report that they have no money to buy lunch that day, openDemocracy has learned.

But families and youth workers said awareness of even this limited option is low – and that there is a lot of fear, stigma and judgement attached to asking for this kind of ad-hoc help – as well as concerns from the children about putting parents into debt.

One parent told openDemocracy, “I think they’ll let you have one lending of some money [ie credit for a meal], but my son didn’t even know that so he’s been without [any meal] before.”

A recent school leaver commented that his friend who was “just over the cut-off point” for free school meals, with a mother who worked three low-paid jobs, was “seen as an annoyance” for sometimes relying on the credit, which openDemocracy understands needs to be paid back in most instances.

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Faced with such limited options, Stark told openDemocracy that some young people he works with are instead “stealing food, because they don’t want to say ‘you know, my mum and dad can’t afford to put money on’ [the top-up prepayment cards most schools now use]… so it becomes this invisible problem”.

“They’re not stealing good food, they’re stealing crisps and biscuits so they’re not getting the nutrition they’re need, all they’re getting is an energy rush with the sugar that enables them to get through the last couple of hours.”

His experience reflects recent warnings by senior police about increasingly “desperate” people turning to crime in order to eat. New chief inspector Andy Cooke recently recommended police “use discretion more often” when dealing with those shoplifting food – though he was slapped down by policing minister Kit Malthouse.

Hunger is also drawing young people into more serious crime. Youth worker Adam Muirhead, from Brighton, told openDemocracy that some are getting involved in drugs gangs “because the people grooming them can afford the McDonalds that their parents can't – they are providing for children some of those basic needs”.

His words echo a recent warning from former Metropolitan Police chief superintendent Dal Babu: “What you’re seeing increasingly is young people being groomed and targeted on the internet or directly outside schools, they will be given a free chicken and chips meal.

“A lot of these kids will be hungry – they get an offer of free food then they’re in debt to a gang who will want them to do things in return.”

Muirhead added that, in a bitter twist, “drugs themselves are nicknamed ‘food’ – a less conspicuous term for discussing their movement, but also because it's (financially) nourishing.”

‘Intolerance for bullshit’

As the cost of living crisis and the extent of hidden hunger deepens, charities, unions and food campaigners are demanding the government extend free school meal entitlement – at least to all UK families in receipt of Universal Credit and equivalent benefits, if not to all schoolchildren. The former would cost £700m a year, according to the Child Poverty Action Group.

The Scottish and Welsh governments – as well as a few London councils – provide, or are in the process of providing, universal free school meals to all primary school pupils.

But last month, in a parliamentary debate on extending such measures to children in England, Conservative schools minister Will Quince said: “The question is whether a permanent change to the eligibility criteria for free school meals is… affordable and sufficiently targeted... My answer to all those points at the moment is no.”

On the same day, Labour faced sharp criticism for whipping its members in the Lords to abstain on a Lib Dem motion to extend eligibility to all families on Universal Credit, reportedly because the party is working on its own solutions.

A lot of these kids will be hungry – they get an offer of free food then they’re in debt to a gang

Luke Billingham said he’d seen young people finding “political expression”, with what he called “fruitful intolerance” of the “bullshit” of “seeing their friends go hungry and then walking past Victoria Park and million-pound houses”.

He added: “Politics as it’s going is something that they don’t really want to put up with and they want to change, and that could be different kinds, it could be helping one and other, sure, and more activism.”

His project had “taken young people to speak to the mayor, to power holders, to reports, articulating their lived experiences of these issues and highlighting the urgent need for change.”

All the youth workers openDemocracy spoke to said that feeding young people after school was an increasingly important part of their work, despite struggling with their own limited funding. Some also arranged cooking groups, helping young people to prepare meals and feed each other.

But Stark told openDemocracy young people were “feeling very angry – this is a generation where people have no hope, how are they are supposed to be expected to do well at school when they’re hungry? How are they supposed to be responsible?”

*Some names have been changed

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