After UK MPs voted against extending free school meals over the half term, a cause spearheaded by footballer Marcus Rashford, communities have been coming together to ensure that vulnerable children across the country don’t go hungry — including GMSP Foundation and The Akshaya Patra Foundation.
The Indian charity is among those who are stepping up with a tried and tested system that has already fed over 1.8 million children in India and launched a state-of-the-art kitchen in Watford as an affordable, scalable solution to the child hunger issue in the UK.
Speaking to Brown Girl Magazine, Sonal Sachdev Patel, CEO of GMSP Foundation said:
The foundation was set up by my parents, Ramesh and Pratibha Sachdev in 2006 and we fund and support causes that are connected to vulnerable groups. What I think makes the kitchen so different is firstly the scale at which the kitchens can produce food. This kitchen in Watford will produce up to 9,000 meals every single day. The second is nutrition – I think this is an important point that the country as a whole is missing. We’re talking about children facing hunger but we need to do more than just fill their bellies, we need to feed their minds.
Child hunger in the UK has been a growing issue before the Coronavirus pandemic hit.
“Some 14 million people in the UK live in poverty, and 4.5 million of them are children,” wrote Craig Sargeant, general manager, Mars Food in The Grocer. It was also reported that ‘between 1 April 2019 and 31 March 2020, The Trussell Trust’s foodbank network distributed 1.9 million three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis.’ That is a whopping 74% increase in food bank usage five years ago. Patel added
It’s so shocking to me that we are the 6th largest global economy, yet 1 in 5 children under the age of 15 doesn’t know if they’ll have a nutritious meal that day. It’s the kind of thing to hear in another country. But it’s happening on our doorstep.
The model, which has been successful in India, should add further embarrassment to the UK government as their attempts to show compassion has fallen on deaf ears with people wanting action rather than empty words. This has been evident in the way individuals and businesses have been rallying around their local communities offering to cook and prepare meals.
Many of these people are from ethnic minority backgrounds — despite instances where these communities have been previously targeted and used as scapegoats, there has been a strong desire to step up and contribute to a national crisis in a way where the UK government has failed.
Bombaylicious is a business based in Coulsdon, London, who provided free meals to families during the half term. Asad Khan, the founder, explained that they are a local business that wanted to support local kids of the future.
I grew up receiving free school meals and it’s an opportunity for my team and I to give back. Rashford is doing a great job. We are happy to see that he has flagged this issue up, furthermore, we are more than happy to support him and his campaign.
Having been a recipient of free school meals growing up, Khan understands how far these kinds of meals can go. To give back, he created a non-veg option and a vegetarian option, all using fresh produce, packed full of flavour and sourced locally. The meals were also GM-free and did not use any preservatives or additives.
Nutrition is also something that the Akshaya Patra Kitchen takes very seriously too. The meals produced are balanced with labs looking at both macro and micro nutrients. Patel explains,
Nutrition is linked not only to children’s health but also to their general wellbeing, to their education. We know children that don’t have proper nourishment, can’t concentrate. And if you can’t concentrate, you can’t learn and if you can’t learn, you can’t do well in school. It has so many knock-on effects so food is really central to helping disadvantaged children come out of the situation that they’re in.
Speaking to families there seemed to be mixed feelings about the government’s decision. Barbara is a single parent with two teenage sons aged 14 and 16 and has found the Free School Meals Provision to be helpful.
The fact that I don’t have to spend the extra money on lunches and breakfast when they are at school is a big help to me, I am just about making ends meet with not being able to work. Holiday help or provision would take the extra burden of me, at least then I know there would be help to feed them. My boys are growing and they need to eat. With help in the holidays at least I won’t have to ‘police’ the food that my sons eat – I hate having to do this so we have enough to last from week to week.
Kamara, 27, is a single mother to three children under the age of 11. Rather than blame the government, her outlook is slightly different
You can’t be angry realistically, because as an adult, you choose to have children and yes the government’s help is there but sometimes you have to fend for yourself. Yes the vouchers helped massively but this time they’re not doing them and families will see the effect. But as an adult, I’m 27 now, this was never around when I was a child. Your parents would have to make sure you had enough to get by.
When it comes to eradicating child poverty, there is no one solution, but there are options that government can explore. Beth Prescott, Press Office and Policy Lead for Transforming Lives for Good, a charity that works with local churches, said: “Eradicating child hunger is critical but no one policy will do it alone – it must be part of an expansive policy compilation that tackles the very route of why children are living in poverty in the UK.
“The government must set up a child poverty commission, to look into child poverty in the UK and what can be done to eradicate it, with the government committing to actioning the suggestions from the commission. This commission should include expertise from charities and organisations working on the frontline, as well as families themselves.
“Some initial policies that will help include holiday provision for all children on Free School Meals over every school holiday, expanding the criteria for Free School Meals (currently 1.4 million children are on Free School Meals but 3 million children are living in poverty) and making the temporary £20 increase in Universal Credit permanent while including all related legacy benefits in this increase.”
It has been heartening to see communities rally together. But it is not our responsibility every time school holidays come around to essentially cover this government’s failure to provide the support families need to get by. While Boris Johnson may try to ride on the coattails of Marcus Rashford, The Akshaya Patra Kitchen and the many others that stepped up, he needs to understand that there are long term consequences by not taking the necessary actions as Patel points out.
“We can’t expect to have a healthy and prosperous nation for our future if we leave our children underfed and undernourished. It is a basic principle, you’ve got to look after the children of the nation and of course there are all the links to education, but what about the basic right of the UK’s most disadvantaged children and the right to a healthy, hot, nutritious meal? How much more basic can you get than that?”