Are school children really going so hungry they’re stealing ketchup sachets to make soup?

Published by The Mail on Sunday (9th June, 2019)

One head teacher says that, in 2019, starving school children in Britain are scouring bins for food. Another claims pupils are so desperate to eat they steal sachets of tomato ketchup.

Yet more teachers talk of spending mornings preparing breakfast for hungry pupils, provoking Oscar-winning actress Dame Emma Thompson to say she is ‘truly ashamed’ by children going hungry in one of the world’s richest countries. 

That is not all. No less a figure than the Archbishop of Canterbury has said ‘hunger stalks large parts of our country’, shocking him more than the starving families he met in African conflict zones.

Earlier this year, MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee accused Ministers in a report of ‘turning a blind eye to hunger’, saying they failed to act ‘upon hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition’.

Then Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner insisted it was a scandal that ‘there are children struggling to learn because of poverty and hunger’.

Finally Philip Alston, the UN’s grandly titled Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, claimed our nation was ignoring ‘the systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population’ in an extraordinarily virulent outburst. 

Alston said ‘harsh and uncaring’ Tories were deliberately ripping apart the welfare-state glue that bound society together, pointing for proof to hungry school pupils. ‘People said they had to choose either to eat or heat their homes,’ he reported.

But can all this really be true? Is modern Britain – the world’s fifth-biggest economy, with employment at record-breaking levels – gripped by the kind of grotesque childhood hunger most of us thought had been consigned to history?

I have reported on famine in East Africa and poverty on three continents. So three weeks ago, I set out to see if starving children really stalk the streets of my own nation – or whether this is just hyperbolic talk from hysterical critics of a Tory government.

I focused on two cities. The first was Oxford, which, behind its gilded image, contains some of the most deprived communities of England, inflamed by the high cost of housing in a city where development is throttled by its own green belt.

It is also a city visited by both Alston, the loudmouth Australian law professor turned UN official, and Kartik Raj, author of the highly critical Human Rights Watch report.

The second was Glasgow, where reports emerged last year of an eight-year-old boy so lacking in sustenance he stole sachets of ketchup to make soup, until he was spotted by teachers.

This revelation, which was raised in the Scottish Parliament, came from Suzanne McGlone, who works with a charity running food banks in a struggling suburb. ‘I was shocked when I started here,’ she told me. ‘It’s not acceptable for people to be going hungry.’

But when I asked her about this particular shocking case, she told me they had discovered the boy’s mother had severe mental health difficulties, making the story more complex than it first seemed. 

The links between psychiatric problems and poverty turned out be a common theme.

At one Oxford food bank, I met a 33-year-old mother-of-three called Jo Wimble. Her story was sad: a single mother aged 15, she left school without qualifications – yet after working as a carer she won a place at university, determined to become a social worker.

But shortly before completing her degree last year, she jumped from a window due to stress and psychiatric problems, badly damaging her right arm – an action repeated earlier this year, leaving her stuck on dwindling benefits. 

Now she shops around for fresh food, visiting Asda for cut-price vegetables shortly before closing time to avoid cheap processed products, but is fearful of the future. ‘I do a £40 shop on a Friday but with three boys to feed that goes quickly,’ she said.

Few would begrudge helping women like Jo – and food banks, surging in numbers across Britain, are a laudable example of charities, citizens and retailers joining forces to assist those in need.

But why are there suddenly so many – does that shine a light on Britain’s hidden hunger?

Ironically, given the political furore they stir up, one factor in the explosion of food banks has been a Tory decision to allow job centres to refer benefit claimants to them when they fall through cracks in the system – something not allowed under Labour.

‘I sense it’s down to need,’ says Andrew Bevan, a trustee of the Community Emergency Foodbank in Oxford. ‘Some people may play the system but most people hate going to them.’

Not everyone agrees. One teaching assistant walked along a nearby street pointing out to me the houses she said were owned by families fleecing food banks.

‘They don’t need the food, but it saves them money they can spend on other things or send to their home countries,’ she said.

‘There are some kids coming to our school who are hungry – but it is only because their parents are spending their money elsewhere. It’s all a sham. There are so many lies.’

I also observed one man who was a paid community worker take a box of food, and was told his partner is a teacher. As a couple, they should not be below the breadline.

Before visiting Oxford, I examined the data on hunger.

Certain figures seem to keep being repeated, most notably the claim that 8.4 million people and 2.5 million children – nearly one in five British youngsters – live in ‘food insecure’ households.

These figures turned out to come from a Gallup global survey carried out for a UN agency, which included 1,000 people telephoned in Britain. Yet we all know opinion polls can be highly unreliable.

Additionally, the definition of ‘food insecurity’ is very elastic, stretching from grinding starvation through to simply eating too few vegetables whether for lack of cash or of nearby stores, or for other reasons.

That figure of 2.5 million children living in ‘food insecure’ households relies on data going back to 2014 – yet was a key prop both for the Environmental Audit Committee report earlier this year and another, two months ago, from the influential Food Foundation. 

This latter report was launched by Emma Thompson, who attacked ‘positively Dickensian’ levels of child poverty.

Iain Wilkinson, a Kent University professor of sociology who helped with the work, later wrote an article headlined ‘Agony of hunger the norm for many children in the UK’. 

Another key source is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the 36-nation club of rich countries. 

It relies on that same Gallup survey, which asked: ‘Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?’ This results in a claim that eight per cent of Britons suffer food poverty.

Yet no one ever mentions how this study shows the figure has declined in recent years – and is currently lower than it was in 2007, the year Tony Blair quit as Labour leader.

In 2007, the survey found 9.5 per cent of people saying they faced food insecurity. This rose to 11 per cent by 2013/14 but was down to eight per cent on the most recent data. 

It also indicates our nation is doing better than France (9.5 per cent), significantly better than the OECD average (12.7 per cent) – and dramatically better than the United States (21 per cent). Now the Government plans to compile its own figures.

Yet leaving aside those who are homeless or enduring mental health issues, the truth about British children and hunger seems a world away from the most emotive claims.

I was struck by a talk with one primary school head in one of the poorest parts of Oxford who spoke thoughtfully about the issues without blaming easy targets.

‘We’ve had cases of parents who have not eaten for a few days to ensure food for their kids,’ she said, explaining this includes refugee families nervous about seeking help from authorities.

This school provides bagels in the morning for pupils from struggling families. The head estimated one in five families there face food poverty, including overuse of cheap processed items – and about 20 children, she suggested, suffered bouts of ‘hunger’ at any one time.

‘Food is a very emotive issue for families – and even if your life is stressful, you try your utmost to feed the kids since it is a symbol of nurturing parents. But this has definitely got worse in recent years.’

The following day in Oxford I met Kevin, a cheerful 34-year-old single father surviving on ‘46p brown bread and 16p cans of beans’ to ensure his nine-year-old son enjoyed healthy food and possibly a cinema trip before the arrival of his next benefit payment.

Kevin ran through his finances: monthly income of about £300 from a part-time job to fit in with school hours, and benefits of some £700. Almost half went on rent, £103 on bus fares and, after paying his regular bills, he was left with £15 to £20 a week.

He also had to pay £127 a month on arrears run up during the payment lull when put on Universal Credit last year – and admitted surviving thanks to odd jobs on the black economy and loans from friends. ‘Life here is hard,’ he said.

Danielle, a 36-year-old single mother in Scotland, found herself on food handouts when it took six weeks for her tax credits to migrate to Universal Credit payments, leading her to fall into serious debt.

She became so desperate she raided her four-year-old son’s piggybank – but always made sure he had something to eat, even if this left her going to bed hungry. ‘Sometimes my son would say he was still hungry. He is quite a skinny wee boy.

‘If he had been to nursery he would have got a good meal there, and I told myself a slice of toast for dinner was enough for him.’

Danielle’s story illustrates how a flawed benefits system becomes a trap as well as a safety net. ‘If I work more hours and earn more, then my payments are cut and I end up with less income,’ she said.

‘The worst time was when I was waiting for Universal Credits to kick in,’ says Danielle. ‘By the time they did, I owed so much money I couldn’t afford shopping. The fridge was empty.’

Suzanne McGlone, that community worker in Glasgow who knew about the ketchup sachet boy, has a similar story.

She told me of working five extra hours to earn £43 – then seeing her council tax rise, her housing benefit fall and being left £148 worse off after paying for her daughter’s childcare.

Another difficulty with the sclerotic benefits system is that it struggles to support those suffering sudden disruption to their lives such as job dismissal or relationship breakdown – with food poverty often the temporary but distressing result, especially for those on Universal Credit.

This was confirmed by head teachers, food bank officials and parents – such as Glaswegian Louise Mellis, 33, who lost her job as a personal assistant due to the challenges of raising a son with learning disabilities.

She was left with just £34 a week in child benefits after tax credits were stopped and she waited for Universal Credit to start – less than the cost of both her car’s fuel and heating her home, let alone buying food.

‘It was the worst I’ve felt in my life, really horrible – and it was so embarrassing to have empty cupboards. I would skip one meal a day and my two boys were not eating healthily. You feel such a failure.’

Her eldest son, a talented goalkeeper, had just signed for Kilmarnock Football Club and for a short while they falsified a food diary he was asked to keep. ‘You rely on toast and beans,’ she said. ‘Every day was a battle. I could not even afford to get them yogurt.’

Eventually a friend persuaded her to go to a food bank – and now she works there part-time.

Louise’s story highlights how hunger can exist outside of chaotic families. Yet these instances are often short-lived, and children generally seem protected thanks to the efforts of parents and schools, although problems may intensify in holidays.

Disturbing in a rich nation, yes, but a long way from both the starving children I have seen in parts of Africa and all those hyperbolic claims that hunger is now the norm in many of Britain’s classrooms.

And as for the portrayal of a Dickensian Britain filled with starving pupils cooking soup from stolen ketchup, that seems little more than politically motivated fiction.

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