Schools becoming 'fourth emergency service' to cold and hungry children

Food charity in schools is becoming mainstream across England amid the cost-of-living crisis. Credit: PA

Millions of parents are struggling to feed their children and heat their homes, a Bristol expert has said.

Dr William Baker recently led a study into the expanding network of school food banks and pantries introduced to support families amid the cost-of-living crisis.

Food charity in schools is becoming mainstream across England amid the cost-of-living crisis, welfare cutbacks and entrenched poverty, the study claimed.

According to one header teacher, schools have become "literally the fourth emergency service”, with another support worker saying, "We’re seen as the universal service… because other services aren’t there anymore".

Spiralling food and energy prices were reported to be compounding the issue of food insecurity, compelling schools to step in as a safety net in the absence of adequate welfare state support.

A primary school pupil cited in the research wrote a letter appealing to their school, which read: “We haven’t got any gas. We haven’t got any food for tonight, please can you help?”

Dr Baker, who's from the University of Bristol said: “After years of austerity and cutbacks, rocketing food prices means millions of parents can’t afford to feed their kids or heat their homes.

“Schools see the consequences of this every day, and many are responding by providing food to families through their own food banks and pantries.

“The project started locally but soon became national when it became clear these issues were widespread.

"It clearly shows how food support systems within schools are now well-organised and entrenched. Given the current situation, initiatives like food banks in schools are likely here to stay."

The research involved 25 schools nationwide, comprising primary and secondary schools in cities including London, Liverpool, Birmingham and Leicester, as well as smaller towns in urban, rural and coastal locations.

Most schools reported supporting 15 to 20 families on a regular basis, while several larger secondary schools in deprived areas were supporting more than 40 families a week, with food sourced via partnerships with major food waste charities and supermarkets.

Food aid operations were found to vary in size and structure, ranging from discreet food parcels given to parents and funded by staff donations to larger-scale, well-advertised, regular provision by large supermarkets and food waste charities.

Examples of this included a free help-yourself pantry in a shed next to a playground, and a weekly stall set up at school pick-up time for parents to select what they need.

“It’s striking and concerning how normalised and embedded the food aid had become within schools in England,” Dr Baker said.

Interviews with staff involved in this work uncovered how many families are falling through the cracks in the welfare system, for example, those on Universal Credit who may not quite qualify for free school meal provision.

A support worker said: “It’s those on the borderline, that actually, they can’t get free school meals because they’re earning £10 more than just above the threshold… so with everything else is going to happen, they’re not going to be able to manage.”

The scale of need extends beyond food, so schools have also been stepping in to provide clothes, shoes and cleaning products.

Dr Baker said: “Schools are often also supplying other essential items. Many staff I’ve spoken to attribute this need for support to broader cuts to services nationally and locally, with the cost-of-living crisis on top.”

The findings back up recent research by The Food Foundation, which found last September that a quarter (25.2%) of all households with children experience food insecurity.

A recent study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found almost 42% of families with more than two children routinely experience food insecurity.

Dr Baker added: “Levels of food insecurity in the UK are deeply concerning and create major challenges for families and schools. No child or family should go hungry or worry about where their next meal is coming from.

“Schools and food charity can’t solve this problem; it requires a more coordinated and extensive response from the Government that tackles destitution and poverty, particularly amongst families with children.”

James Bowen, assistant general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “We know that the cost-of-living crisis is hitting some children and families very hard.

“As well as trying to focus on teaching, we’ve heard from school leaders who are increasingly spending time on initiatives like school food banks and warm hubs, providing crisis vouchers for supermarkets, offering use of showers and washing machines, and even giving parents cash for energy meters.

“The Government has so far done very little to help alleviate the impact of poverty on children – studies like this show how urgent it is that more is done.”

A Government spokeswoman said: “We understand the pressures many households are under, which is why we are providing record financial support worth an average of £3,300 per household.

“We have raised benefits in line with inflation, increased the National Living Wage and are providing help for households with food, energy and other essential costs.

“We have also extended eligibility for free school meals several times since 2010 to more groups of children than any other government over the past half a century, doubling the number of children receiving free school meals.”

The study, "Schools and Food Charity in England", was published in the British Educational Research Journal.