Almost two million children in the UK went short of food this year, according to a new report.
The findings suggest child poverty and hunger are deeper and broader issues than previously thought and have become an “urgent national challenge”, according to the Social Market Foundation (SMF) think tank.
Some 16% of surveyed parents said their children had to make do with smaller portions, had to skip meals or go a day without eating between March and September, it added.
SMF chief economist Aveek Bhattacharya said: “The stark evidence in this report shows that the challenge of food insecurity and child hunger is even greater and more urgent than many observers had thought and feared.
“The idea of a single child going short of food is heartbreaking, but our evidence shows that almost two million children have been in that awful situation this year.”
Expanding eligibility for free school meals, extending holiday food programmes and retaining the £20 increase in universal credit are effective measures to begin tackling the issue, he added.
Five of the 10 authorities with the highest share of children at risk of hunger are in London, with the others in Devon and Lancashire, according to the report.
It also recommended that policymakers should redistribute food nationally, finding sources of waste in the food chain and directing surpluses to the neediest areas, as well as devolving responsibility and funding for food distribution to local authorities.
A Local Government Association spokesman said: “Councils will be using the government’s £170 million winter funding package to help provide and oversee support to ensure children do not go hungry in the Christmas holidays and February half-term.
“As many households are likely to be economically vulnerable for some time to come, it is also vital that the government restores local welfare funding so councils can provide preventative support to families who need it.”
Currently, there are no official statistics on the numbers of children suffering food deprivation, the SMF said.
But there has been national debate over child hunger recently, notably highlighted by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign which led the government to backtrack and provide free meals to disadvantaged children over the Christmas holidays.
The SMF report, Measuring and Mitigating Child Hunger in the UK, was sponsored by food delivery firm Deliveroo, which is part of Rashford’s child food poverty taskforce.
The SMF/Opinium survey was carried out between October 3 and October 20.
“A nationally representative sample of 3,000 adults was used, from which a sample of 1,000 parents of children aged under 18 was identified”, the SMF said.