Children in low-income families suffer ‘shame and social exclusion

Original article by the Guardian

2 Apr 2019

Food poverty’s effects on children’s health and wellbeing a grave concern, study finds

Children in low-income families suffer social exclusion and a sense of shame because they do not have enough food to eat, according to research published by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG).

Many do not qualify for free school meals; even when they do, the lunches can be insufficient for teenagers, and some children from families who have no recourse to public funds (NRPF) because of their parents’ immigration status do not eat at all during the school day.

The UCL study, Living Hand to Mouth: Children and Food in Low-income Families, includes conversations with 51 children from low-income families in south-east England who describe their experiences of food at home, school and in social settings.

The interviews, which form part of a larger European study of food povertyamong children and families in Portugal, Norway and the UK, offer a rare insight into children’s lived experience of food poverty.

Some told how schools identify children on free school meals (FSM) by restricting the food options that they can select, causing children embarrassment. Around a quarter went hungry at times despite sacrifices by their parents, and just over half the young people did not have money to spend on food with their friends.

Amara, 15, whose family has NRPF, told researchers: “When I’m hungry I just can’t concentrate, it’s really, really hard for me to do that … so I just need to make my mind up and know that I will eat after five hours, seven hours when I get home [from school].”

Gideon, 15, whose family also has NRPF, said: “It’s embarrassing, yeah, you have no money on your card and then you just watch them eat.” The lack of food makes him listless and unable to focus. “Sometimes you don’t have enough energy, you cannot cope in the classroom so you have to try and rest a bit. You just put your head on the table and you end up falling asleep in the classroom and you get in trouble for it.”

Maddy, 16, described her embarrassment at being identified as being on FSM. “When she [lunchtime staff at the checkout] was like ‘You can’t get that, you’re free school meals’, like I was really embarrassed ’cos people were waiting behind me, I was kind of like “Oh my God”. And it’s like you’re really restricted to what you can eat with free school meals. So now I just get what I know I’m safe with … so a small baguette and carton of juice.”

Parents often go without food to ensure their children eat. Bryony, 13, said: “If there isn’t enough food, we’ll get it and sometimes mum will go hungry and starve and stuff. Even if it’s not that much food for me and [brother], it’s enough that we’ve actually had something, whereas mum hasn’t, and it gets a bit to the point where we’ll start feeling guilty because mum hasn’t had anything and we’ve had it.”

Co-author Rebecca O’ Connell said: “Food poverty and its effects on children’s and young people’s physical and emotional wellbeing is a matter of grave concern. In the face of piecemeal responses and government neglect, the outlook is set to remain bleak.

“To tackle the food poverty of children and families, the government should make use of research on budget standards to ensure that wages and benefits, in combination, are adequate for a socially acceptable standard of living and eating, which recognises the fundamental role of food in health and social inclusion.”

Alison Garnham, CPAG chief executive, added: “The young people in this study make the case for universal free school meals more powerfully than anyone else could. Their hunger, their shame, their sense of being cut off from learning and social opportunities – all because parents can’t afford enough food – are appalling in a society that believes every child matters.”