Dr Jo Pike, Senior Lecturer in Childhood Studies in the Carnegie School of Education at Leeds Beckett University; Rys Farthing, Policy Advisor; Lindsay Graham, Child Food Poverty Policy Advisor; and Anna Taylor of The Food Foundation in London, have gained support from a cross party group of MPs for the inquiry which will be launched in the Westminster.
According to recent government figures, 3.9 million children were living in poverty in the UK in 2014-15 (DWP, 2016). In 2014/15 the country’s major provider of food banks, The Trussell Trust, reported that the number of people given three-day emergency food parcels rose from 25,899 in 2008/9 to 1,084,6045. After accounting for people who may receive food parcels more than once, it is estimated that about 500,000 different people in the UK received food assistance in 2014/15. Almost half of those receiving assistance are thought to be children.
Dr Pike explained: “Food insecurity relates to the availability of food and the ability for people to acquire sufficient food, and in socially acceptable ways (ie not by going through rubbish bins or relying on food banks, which can be precarious). Household food insecurity is increasing in the UK and yet little is known about how it affects children and young people. Attempts to address the issues rarely acknowledge children and young people's experiences, or their views.”
In the US, national data is routinely collected around children’s food insecurity. Dr Pike and her colleagues are pressing for equivalent data to be collected in the UK, specifically around children and whether or not parents are going without to feed their children.
Dr Pike said: “Children are growing and so need certain nutrients and a quality of diet. Not only are there detrimental health outcomes from not getting enough food but this impacts on their cognitive development and can actually lead to childhood obesity as evidence suggests that the cheapest foods are the least healthy. Children living in the most deprived areas have double the rates of obesity when they start school and are also on average at least one centimetre shorter than children in the least deprived areas by the time they reach year six.
“Anecdotally, we know that children are going without. The use of food banks is rising and children are arriving at school hungry. Parents can find it hard to feel children over the holidays, if they rely on free school meals during term time; and teachers are reporting that children come back to school in September malnourished.”
Dr Pike and the team want to hear directly from children. Leeds Beckett University are setting up a website for young people to contribute to the discussion and share what is going on in their lives and what they are doing when they do not have enough food.
The team are also conducting a range of workshops with school children to involve them in finding solutions to the problem. The first workshop took place in Leeds on 6 November and the team aim to replicate the success of this event in schools across the country.
Speaking about the need for the inquiry, Dr Pike said: “Childhood food insecurity is poorly understood and we believe that innovative and comprehensive changes to policy can have a big impact on food insecurity. We need to uncover the depth, scale and nature of child food insecurity and to understand the challenges that children are facing and the solutions that they, and their families, feel are acceptable to them.”
The inquiry is planning to be held in three stages: holding a review of existing research; establishing small working groups of young people, alongside adult and expert input and an online consultation; and holding evidence hearings before writing a report and lobbying for change.
Dr Pike said: “This should have been on the agenda years ago. We are the fifth richest country in the world and yet we have children growing up not being able to eat properly. There is a growing gap between children receiving free school meals and the more affluent children in this country.”