Our children are hungry: do they have a right to be free from food poverty?
For millions of children around the world, school meals are a lifeline. With many schools still closed nationwide in more than 104 countries, the World Food Programme estimates that more than 265 million children are not receiving their school meal. Child hunger — exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic — is a global problem. But with a new reality, one that has served to exacerbate and widen existing inequalities, the gravity of the challenges facing children in England have come to the fore.
The agony of hunger has become a norm for millions of children in the UK
Last week, UK MPs voted against extending free school meals into the school holidays until Easter 2021, a measure intended to mitigate against the growing hunger crisis that has left as many as a fifth of children beset by food insecurity. MPs rejected Labour’s motion by 322 votes to 261, with a government majority of 61. The decision has been widely criticised, leading to many local councils, schools and businesses taking responsibility to ensure that children do not suffer this week.
Some Tory MPs have taken to social and mainstream media to defend their voting, perhaps some more brazenly than others. Several arguments have been made: that to extend free school meals into the school holiday would “increases dependency” on the state, while the cost could contribute to “destroying the currency”. In response to criticism of his vote, one minister, Ben Bradley, MP for Mansfield, tweeted “extending freebies are a sticking plaster not a solution”. Opposition figures branded the outcome “disgusting”, with many accusing the Government of “not caring” that the more than 1.4 million children eligible for free school meals in England would now go hungry.
Nadia Whittome MP tweeted, “I don’t know how the 322 Tory MPs are sleeping tonight. Because I can’t, knowing that 1.4 million children like Cameron will go hungry this Christmas.” Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group, Alison Garnham, said of the vote that “in short it ducks our moral responsibility to protect the country’s most vulnerable children.” Many people are angry, with some leaving empty plates in protest outside of the offices of those who voted against the extension of free school meals, with written messages of ‘Lunch is not a luxury’ and ‘No child should go hungry’. An ‘End child food poverty — no child should be going hungry’ petition has quickly been gaining traction, with close to 1,000,000 signatures , at the time of writing.
Opening the opposition debate, the shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said the proposal was not a silver bullet to this structural issue but was much-needed in the short term. “Downing Street said just the other day, and I quote: ‘It is not for schools to provide food to pupils during the school holidays’ … I cannot believe I have to spell this out — it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that children do not go hungry. They don’t stop being hungry just because the school bell rings for the end of term.”
It is clear that this is an issue that has captured national attention. As such, necessary questions abound: what is the scale of the problem? How have we allowed this to happen? Whose responsibility is it to protect our most vulnerable citizens?
School meals are a lifeline for many children
As a teacher, I remember when I would stock my cupboards weekly, with breakfast bars and Capri Suns, because I knew that children would spend their lunchtime in my classroom, denying that they were hungry, despite not eating for the entire day — sometimes for longer. And in more desperate times, “Miss, I’m really hungry. Do you have any food?” These situations were reported to senior staff but this was the lived experience of many of my students and in those moments, I did what many teachers have done. I fed my students. My experience is not unique. It is difficult to accept, and perhaps difficult to believe, that there are still children going hungry in the sixth-richest country in the world by GDP. But this is a daily struggle for many.
Children are showing up at school with empty stomachs, and schools have long been collecting food on an ad hoc basis and sending it home because teachers know that their students will otherwise go hungry. Holiday hunger has long been an issue. The phrase that “bodies remember” might be important to consider here — the agony of the bodily experience of deprivation that, when suffered, might be argued to remain to haunt a person for the rest of their lives. That this is the face of twenty-first century Britain is a disgrace, but it is also a social issue and potentially, an economic disaster. To what extent does this vote communicate to millions of children that in our society, they do not matter?
The new face of a long-existing problem?
It is undeniable that a stark hunger problem exists in a highly unequal Britain, where 22% of people and 30% of children live in poverty. A 2018 report by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, found that 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. But these statistics, largely attributed to punishing fiscal austerity measures unfairly targeting the most vulnerable in society, are pre-pandemic.
Before the pandemic struck, 10% of children in the U.K. were living in households affected by “severe food insecurity,” which the Food Foundation defines as poverty that results in hunger. Now, the number may be as high as 20% as the pandemic puts strains on family incomes, according to the Food Foundation. A separate YouGov survey commissioned by the Food Foundation in April 2020 found five million people in the UK living in households with children under 18 had experienced food insecurity since the lockdown started. The number of households with children going hungry has doubled since lockdown began, as millions of people struggle to afford food.
Whose responsibility is it?
The recognition of the right to food as a fundamental human right dates back to the early years of the United Nations. Now, the right to food is widely recognised at the international level. Considering that only states are parties to various international agreements, they have progressive and immediate obligations, and are ultimately accountable for compliance and primarily responsible for the full realisation of the right to food for all persons within their territory. Article 11 of the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which can be considered the core provision with regard to the right to food and its protection under international law, confirms ‘the right to adequate food’, adding ‘the right of everyone to be free from hunger’. General Comment 12 provides further detail as to the normative quality of the right, affirming that the right to adequate food is indivisibly linked to the inherent dignity of the human person and is indispensable for the fulfilment of other human rights. General Comment 12 further identifies three types of obligations: to respect, protect and fulfil (facilitate and provide).
Consequently the first obligation is a negative one: that of respect. A state must refrain from interfering with the free enjoyment of a right, from taking any measure that would result in preventing individuals from accessing adequate food. Second, the obligation to protect requires the state to take positive measures to ensure that third parties do not interfere in rights holders’ access to food. The third obligation to fulfil also refers to a positive intervention on the part of the state; that of providing food to those that cannot provide for themselves for reasons beyond their control. This obligation covers from facilitation to direct provision of food.
By facilitate, it is intended that states must pro-actively engage in activities intended to strengthen people’s access to and utilisation of resources and means to ensure their livelihood, including food security. The obligation to provide is called for whenever an individual or group is unable, for reasons beyond their control, to enjoy the right to adequate food by the means at their disposal. In this case, the state has to provide for the right directly.
As such, it might be argued that the government must ensure that our most vulnerable children are protected and made a priority. What is undeniable is that our government has yet to extend real lifelines at this time to those who cannot afford food. As evidenced by the UK government U-turn in extending school meals over the summer holiday, such intervention is possible. A refusal to do so is intentional and raises questions around the state’s fulfilment of their obligations.
A concerted approach is necessary
It has been argued that extending free school meals would only ever be a transient, short-term solution to address this issue that is rooted in entrenched inequity. And to some extent, this is true — this issue requires a reconsideration of existing power dynamics, structural inequalities, and the viability of existing solutions. A very transparent consideration of why this is still a persisting experience in modern day Britain — of the root causes — is needed. It has been argued before that the UK government has been in a state of denial over the stark issue of rising poverty levels and perhaps we have been. Yet, we must also consider the here and now. We need concerted, responsive action to ensure that this most fundamental of human rights is protected and that our children and their parents are not vilified for the insecurity and uncertainty they face. Families need more resources to handle these material hardships, and supply these resources we must. Now, more than ever, our children should be prioritised and protected.
A Food Foundation Report asserts that, “What we feed our children is a defining factor of our nation’s values”. This week, with schools no longer providing a reprieve for children reliant on free breakfast clubs and school lunches, poorer families are at crisis point. And our children will suffer most.