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Seeing the Needs

by Michael Ford last modified 15 Jan, 2021 07:02 PM

Free school meals hit the headlines this week and some of the organisations our parishes and schools work with are speaking out about the needs they are seeing.

Seeing the Needs

Original photo courtesy The Children's Society

“I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Emma from Wiltshire was interviewed earlier this week about the food parcel she received to replace the free school meals her son would have had. Emma often goes without meals herself so that there is food for her child but the food parcel not only had little in it, but also included items that her son can’t eat. What should have been a welcome gesture ended up adding to Emma's sense of hopelessness.

It’s a familiar story in foodbanks with parents often going without so that budgets can be stretched that bit more. The poorest people know that every penny counts, and even at the best of times it’s a struggle to make ends meet. Lockdown has hit the budgets of the poorest families very hard.

During the first lockdown last year, foodbank use increased by 120%, on top of the steadily increasing demand over the past 10 years. Many households simply do not have the money to deal with a crisis, and the pandemic has seen those on the lowest incomes facing job-cuts as well as higher costs at home.

The Telegraph, reporting on the meagre contents of the free school meals replacement boxes, cited evidence that the best way to help families struggling to get by is to provide additional cash rather than parcels or vouchers; ‘cash transfers are one of the more cost effective ways of delivering aid: they support the local economy and, unlike food parcels, you don’t need to build an entire new production line from scratch.’

In other words, poorer families know their own dietary requirements, and how to make best use of their money when they buy food.

The Financial Times commented on the ‘threadbare nature of Britain’s welfare state’, comparing benefit levels for people who are newly unemployed with the support available in other countries. ‘For a government that has pledged to help the “left behind”, those on universal credit or relying on free meals have a clear case to be first in line for more support.’

Families turn to foodbanks and charity, or many older people need extra support with heating bills, because they simply don't have enough income to deal with the ordinary costs of living day to day.

A coalition of charities, think-tanks, and community leaders is emerging to make the case for a ‘cash first’ approach to tackling poverty. Possible steps under discussion include extending the £20 uplift to Universal Credit that was introduced last year, removing the 5-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment, ending the 2-child limit for benefits, and a universal basic income.

Speaking to the Church Times, the Bishop of Burnley Philip North, said:

“It is quite impossible to find words strong enough with which to condemn a situation in which private companies seem able to profiteer by subjecting children to hunger and in which Government appears once again to have failed in a core promise to keep our young people secure and safe at a time of national crisis.

“Without the network of voluntary and church-run food distribution centres up and down the country we would by now be seeing chronic and serious malnutrition in a nation whose GDP is the one of the largest in the world. But there is a limit to the size of the safety net that voluntary and community-based organisations can cast.

"It is time for companies to start behaving ethically and Government to start acting decisively.”

The Children’s Society is running a campaign to Strengthen the Safety Net, the Trussell Trust is working towards a Hunger Free Future, and Action for Children is asking the Government to stop poverty hurting young people.

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