The story of hunger in the UK at the moment is not a good one. Most staff in most schools will have direct experience of families struggling with the cost-of-living crisis and the associated pressures on food budgets.
Being hungry affects just about every system in the body. And who doesn’t know someone whose behaviour is affected by being “hangry”? (remember that advert for a certain chocolate bar starring Joan Collins and Stephanie Beacham?!)
Hunger impacts cognitive ability. Capacity for learning is affected, too. Inadequate fuel may lead to children falling asleep at school, being unable to concentrate, and incapable of retaining the knowledge they are learning.
We need nutrition in order to grow and to function. Without it, we are more susceptible to illness, attendance at school may reduce, and children may experience depression and anxiety, and associated symptoms. If we were to do one thing to improve children’s chances of success at school, eliminating hunger would be a great choice.
Yet child hunger is on the rise, despite these clear links with a negative impact on learning. Hunger for knowledge, for learning, for fun and for games would be great, but hunger for food is having a direct impact on what children and young people are achieving in schools. It does not take a genius to appreciate that hunger is not a motivator for children. It does not kickstart learning.
How far does food poverty reach?
The Trussell Trust mid-year statistics revealed that “more emergency food parcels were given out during the April to September 2022 period than ever before for this time of year. Over the last six months, more than 320,000 people have been forced to turn to food banks in the Trussell Trust network for the first time.” We know that food poverty is a major issue now. Between April-September 2022 1.3 million emergency food parcels were given to people facing hardship by the Trussell Trust network.
The Trussell Trust explains on its website that hunger in the UK is not about food. It says, “It’s about a lack of income, leaving people without enough money to afford the essentials. This could be due to problems with the benefits system (delays, inadequacy and deductions), challenging life experiences or ill health, and lack of formal or informal support.” School breakfast and lunch can go a long way towards helping to ameliorate hunger during the school day, but there are clear systemic issues that need to be addressed, and that cannot be solved by schools alone. Over the six months referred to above, food banks have had to spend almost twice as much on food as they did last year.
What about the impact of food poverty on learning?
Zoe McIntyre, Advocacy Manager - Children’s Food, at Food Foundation, has a nuanced understanding of the issue of food poverty and learning. She explained, “Our latest data tell us that child food poverty has doubled in the last year – now affecting an estimated 3.7million children. School lunches can help protect against food insecurity yet currently 800,000 children living in poverty are not entitled to a Free School Meal because the qualifying income threshold is too low. We need the Government to extend the eligibility threshold for Free School Meals by recognising that, for our children, lunchtime is an essential part of the school day during which pupils gain the nutrition they need to concentrate in the classroom. Free school meals are associated with higher rates of attendance and lower rates of absenteeism. Children who receive a nutritious meal every day achieve more at school, especially among the most disadvantaged children.”
Having a diverse diet, packed with the nutrients needed for healthy growth and development is obviously key for children but it is important to ensure as far as possible that any food provided on the school premises is as nutrient-rich as it can be. As we all know, it is not just about filling tummies! Nutrient-dense foods such as fruits and vegetables are essential. Protein and essential fatty acids are also key, not to mention – in our cloudy nation – vitamin D.
It is not political to say that children should not go hungry. There is no controversy in saying hunger should never be a barrier to learning. Yet our communities are facing growing destitution and food insecurity, and the knock-on effect on children’s learning is clear to see.
While schools cannot alone create the circumstances in which no child goes hungry, there are some steps we can all take:
- Be on the look out for children who arrive at school hungry, those who have no food at lunchtime or break, those who ask their friends for food, or who have clearly experienced food poverty during a holiday. They will need your support.
- Make sure that your whole school community knows where to seek help in your locality.
- Link up with local food banks and consider running one in your school if time and resources allow.
- Perhaps most importantly, be alert to the impact that hunger may be having on behaviour and mood in some children. Make sure that they are not further punished for the situation they find themselves in.
Empowering children out of downward spirals is what schools do really well. Even in the face of significant hardship for members of their communities, schools are plugging gaps and finding support for those in need. We can only hope that in this particular hunger story, things will turnaround very soon.
Find out more…
- The Trussell Trust - Stop UK Hunger
- JRF | The Joseph Rowntree Foundation
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world. Elizabeth has also taught on education courses in HE and presented at national and international conferences.