Food poverty is a blight on the lives of millions of children in the UK, and the situation is getting worse. The recent Still Hungry report published by the West Cheshire Foodbank, Chester University and Oxford University, states that in the UK one in three foodbank users are children. And according to The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report – Life on a Low Income in the UK – over two million UK families exist on an inadequate income. In Liverpool alone, over 60,000 people – including up to 25,000 children – accessed food banks last year.
The Share Your Lunch campaign was launched in response to this escalating crisis. In the first instance, we aim to provide 50,000 free nutritious meals to hungry people across Merseyside. But it also hopes to address the wider issue of food poverty. We believe that if the current food aid system does not change, then food poverty will become fully institutionalised in the UK within two years.
Our definition of food poverty is ‘people not having access (by choice) to good fresh food.’ But what does this mean for people experiencing food poverty?
In this blog we talk to Mandi Tambourini, manager of Epsom Street Community Centre, run by Nugent Care, in Bootle, Liverpool.
Epsom Street is one of the organisations in Liverpool to benefit from the #ShareYourLunch campaign.
It is a lifeline to hundreds of people who live in one of the poorest wards in Britain. As well as providing community support, the centre also functions as an unofficial food bank. And as we approach the summer holidays, they expect this situation to become more acute because many children receive their only daily meal at school.
This interview focuses on what children in food poverty experience, and how it impacts on their lives and blights their futures.
Can Cook: What does hunger look like when a child comes through the door?
Mandi: I notice that the children are very lethargic when they come in. Their concentration levels are low, and learning new skills is quite difficult because all they are thinking about is ‘I’m hungry, I need something to eat.’
It’s as if their ‘get up and go’ has got up and gone. We also find that kids get a lot more cramp and stitches.
It is because they haven’t had the sustenance to keep them going. If you haven’t had that much to eat, you aren’t willing to run around. And if your food isn’t that nutritional then it makes it much more worse.
I understand that parents would rather give their kids a packet of cheap noodles rather than not let them have anything at all. But to have that continuously doesn’t sustain what the body needs.
Where do the children eat outside of the holiday club?
Mostly they’ll have breakfast and tea, but they’ll skip dinner. For a lot of them, it’s a case of having a late breakfast and early tea, to try and measure it out.
And they’ll just get some 9p noodles, for example, meaning cramps set in after around five days. So it has an impact on their health.
Even outside the school holidays, people think ‘They get fed in school, isn’t that great!’ But for children who live in poverty they tend not to eat all their school meals because they’re not used to having big meals. Also, they don’t want to be seen as the kid who eats everything, who gets bullied for being poor. It’s heartbreaking to think that that happens.
What change in the children do you see after they have been fed?
They are crazy dudes! We call it ‘Hypo-juice.’ We know it’s because the body is being filled up.
Around 10 to 15 minutes after we’ve given them dinner, they come up to you saying ‘Can we go outside and play football?’ whereas before lunch they can’t be bothered.
And even if we’re doing arts and crafts, they become more creative because their thought processes are there.
It’s very easy to see how a child who isn’t getting the right nutrition will be affected at school, and how it’s going to impact their future.
I believe that everybody has a gift. You may be academically bright, or it may well be that you have more of a practical gift. But if you haven’t been fed properly you haven’t got the energy to fulfil that.
So food poverty means the impact isn’t only on physical health, it impacts on mental health, and the potential to be whoever they can be, or want to be – because they haven’t got the energy to dream, or to be.
I love my city more than words can say, but I am ashamed to say that my city, in many ways, pretends it’s (food poverty) not there. It is.
If we accept it’s there and we deal with it, we will have the brightest young people that we could ever wish to have, who will achieve what they can achieve.
If we choose to ignore it, we are then impacting on the future generations of people who will be living in a poverty trap that is getting wider.
Has this situation got worse over time, and do you see it getting worse?
It has definitely got worse over the last 18 months. Three summers ago we had kids who would come in and they’d be saying: “I don’t want anything to eat, I’m alright, I’ll just have some toast.” Now they ask: “What’s for dinner? Can we have spaghetti bolognese?”
It has escalated in what they’re asking for, from snacks to full-blown meals. And also when we make more food, people want to take it home.
We don’t run a foodbank here, we think it’s too restrictive. But we keep our kitchen cupboards stocked, and the amount of people who come in and fill a carrier bag, and take what they need has risen.
Who typically comes to you for food?
A lot of people have a preconception that it’s people who are claiming benefits. It isn’t.
A lot of people who we’re supporting in here are working their 16 hours, or are on Zero Hour contracts, and they can’t quite balance their books out.
So one week they might be working nine hours, the following week they might get 12, and then they work 30. They’re getting paid by the month, but their benefits are calculated on what they worked the previous month. So they are playing catch-up with being a month behind. It’s the not-knowing what they’re going to be earning.
This is the harsh reality. It’s not about them not being able to budget properly, they are learning how to survive.
Because they say it’s a living wage. It’s not. It’s a survival wage. And it only takes something like your kid needing a new pair of shoes to push you over the edge. The cost of new shoes is the equivalent to two meals. That’s the way they look at things, that’s what we’re being told.
So that can take you from being on the breadline to being in poverty – within a matter of a two-inch growth.
We give out on average 15 food bags per week, and it’s not to the same people.
It’s a mix of some people who we’ve never seen before and in my dream of dreams hope we never see again, and some people who use the centre more frequently.
But none of them take the food for nothing, and that’s what makes it worse. If they do take some food, they want to give something back.
They’ll come in and say “Your windows look a bit dirty, I’ll be round on Wednesday and I’ll give your windows a wipe.” We never say no, because they feel the need to give it back.
They don’t want to be seen as people who scrounge. They want to be seen as people who want to give something back, and as they can’t give money, they give their time.
You’ve worked with Can Cook before. How important is that relationship?
Very important for us! It is important on two levels. One we don’t really have the staff to cook the meals. We try our best but their meals are much better than ours!
Also, they cook what the kids like. Once they did a vegetarian lasagne, and they got the kids to have a little taste and they loved it. So the children were getting fresh food, which supports everything I said about health and wellbeing, and on another level they were eating something they liked, experiencing how different food tastes when it isn’t from a tin.
They would have never tasted vegetable lasagna, or vegetarian spaghetti bolognese before. And their parents aren’t going to try it in fear it will be wasted – they can’t. So Can Cook introduces foods that many of these kids have never tried before.
At Can Cook we believe that good food is a human right and that everybody should have access to fresh food by choice, regardless of their circumstances. We have teamed up with celebrity chef, Simon Rimmer the Liverpool Echo and other partners to launch the Share Your Lunch campaign, providing up to 50,000 free, fresh meals for hungry people in Merseyside.