Schools in England warn of crisis of ‘heartbreaking’ rise in hungry children | UK cost of living crisis

Children are so hungry that they are eating rubbers or hiding in the playground because they can’t afford lunch, according to reports from headteachers across England.

The headteachers say the government is leaving schools to deal with a mounting crisis – a message amplified by a new survey on food poverty in schools, due to be published next month by Chefs in Schools, a healthy eating charity which trains chefs for school kitchens. It reveals that many schools in England are already seeing a “heartbreaking” increase in hungry children, even before winter and big energy bills force more families to choose between switching on the heating and buying food.

One school in Lewisham, south-east London, told the charity about a child who was “pretending to eat out of an empty lunchbox” because they did not qualify for free school meals and did not want their friends to know there was no food at home.

Community food aid groups also told the Observer this week that they are struggling to cope with new demand from families unable to feed their children. “We are hearing about kids who are so hungry they are eating rubbers in school,” said Naomi Duncan, chief executive of Chefs in Schools. “Kids are coming in having not eaten anything since lunch the day before. The government has to do something.”

In England, all infant schoolchildren are entitled to free school meals from reception to year two. But beyond that, only children whose parents earn less than £7,400 a year are eligible, and 800,000 children living in poverty are missing out, according to the Child Poverty Action Group.

Many of the schools Duncan’s charity works with are raiding already over-stretched budgets to feed hungry children who don’t qualify for free school meals. She wants all children from families on universal credit to qualify, a position also taken by teachers’ unions.

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking for our chefs. They are actively going out and finding the kids who are hiding in the playground because they don’t think they can get a meal, and feeding them,” she said.

Duncan said the survey reveals that teachers are buying toasters so that they can dish out breakfast to children who are too hungry to concentrate. One school in Streatham, south London, had a hardship fund that used to support 50 children but is now supporting 100.

Paul Gosling, president of the National Association of Headteachers union, said: “The government knows that when kids turn up in the morning hungry and cold, schools will step in and help. But it’s not right that it’s being left to us with no extra support.”

He said that with huge energy bills and an unfunded teacher pay rise, supporting desperate families would push hundreds of schools into deficit. Headteachers welcomed the government’s announcement last week that electricity and gas in schools would be capped at a lower “government-supported price”, knocking off £4,000 for a school paying £10,000 a month for energy. But they expressed anxiety that the cap is only being offered for six months, and warned that many schools will still be left with much higher bills than they budgeted for.

Will Teece, headteacher at Brookvale Groby Learning Campus, a secondary academy school in Leicester, said parents had been ringing, asking whether the school would be offering free breakfast clubs or after-school clubs with food included.

He warned: “At a time when there is much greater need for support for our families, we are in a much weaker position to be able to provide it.”

Oxford Mutual Aid, a community group which delivers emergency food parcels, has had to cut its delivery days because its hundreds of volunteer packers, drivers and organisers cannot cope with the increase in requests for help, which include regular referrals from primary schools.

Coordinator Muireann Meehan Speed said: “We are struggling to keep up with the demand. Every day I hear the level of distress people are in. Every day I talk to scared families who don’t know where to turn. But we can’t do more than we are already doing.”

The group is hearing daily from local people who have never been unable to afford food before. “They aren’t choosing whether to heat or eat: they can’t afford to do either,” she said.

Craig Johnson, founder of Launch Foods, a charity in Glasgow providing free lunches for 300 schoolchildren a day, said: “People are talking about an approaching crisis. There is already a crisis.”

The charity, which drives silver trucks into primary schools and feeds everyone “with no stigma” using surplus food, has had to take its phone number off its website because it was receiving daily calls from people in places including Newcastle, Liverpool and London, asking if they could help feed children in their area.

“I am getting so frustrated, telling people we can’t help them,” Johnson said. “There shouldn’t be a kid in England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland going hungry. It’s just wrong.”

Michelle Dornelly, founder of Children with Voices, a charity that is feeding families on three estates in Hackney, east London, said they are struggling to cope with “a different level of need”.

As well as children regularly going to bed hungry, she is worried about their growing anxiety levels. “I’m concerned about children going to school with no pens, no deodorant, no toothbrushes. All that affects self-esteem, and their self-confidence is really flagging.”

Dornelly, who is on universal credit herself, says her charity doesn’t have enough storage space or freezers, and she worries about how much her women volunteers are taking on. “I love what I do, but I feel angry that we are left to do this without help from the government,” she said.

“MPs should come and walk the streets of Hackney and find out what is going on.”

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