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3 ways to address child food insecurity in London

This blog is part of our series on the cost of living crisis in London.

A person is food insecure if they eat less and/or their eating habits are disrupted due to a lack of resources.

This is serious problem affecting a growing number of Londoners, including children.

When food insecurity affects children, it has a huge impact. Childhood hunger is linked to lower cognitive development, lower qualifications, and reduced life chances.

The cost of living crisis has intensified the problem and it’s time for the capital’s leaders to take action. Supporting under-pressure food banks, offering free school meals, and establishing a childhood hunger commission.

The scale of the problem

In October, the London Assembly published a report on childhood hunger in London which said that nearly a quarter of a million children in London are living in food insecurity. The figures are likely to have risen since.

This November, grocery price inflation hit a high of 14.7 per cent. Some of the biggest price increases have been for low fat-milk and butter – 40 per cent and 28 per cent more expensive this October than last.

We know that wages are not keeping pace with this sort of inflation. The result? More and more Londoners are having to choose between eating or heating their homes.

And it is the poorest households who are most impacted. Low-income households spend a larger proportion than average of their income on food and energy, so are more affected by food and heating price increases.

At our recent London Conference we held a session on ‘Londoners left behind’, exploring new poverty solutions in the city. Katherine Hill from 4 in 10 told us of her fears that the organisation’s name, based on the statistic that 4 in 10 children in London live in poverty, will soon have change to reflect the rise.

Supporting under-pressure food banks

Food banks have been a vital resource for fighting food insecurity in London. Between April 2021 and March 2020, food banks in the Trussell Trust network provided more than 2.1 million food parcels, and the highest proportion of these were in London.

But food banks themselves are now under pressure from the cost of living crisis.

The Independent Food Aid Network reported in May 2022 that 93% of food banks surveyed reported an increase or significant increase in need for their services since the start of 2022. Of those, 95% said it was due to the rise of cost of living.

But as well as increased demand, the cost of living crisis means food banks are also facing a decrease in donations and increased running costs. At some independent food banks, Katherine Hill said she saw food bank volunteers becoming food bank users.

It’s vital that we support under-pressure food banks if we want to address child food insecurity.

Extending free school meals

One way to take the pressure off families is through free school meals. Universal free school meals ensure that children are eating at least one hot nutritional meal a day which has a direct positive impact on educational attainment and reduces grocery costs for parents at home.

However, Child Poverty Action Group have calculated that currently 41% of children living in poverty in London miss out on free school meals.

This is because in England, a household on Universal Credit must earn less than £7,400 a year to be eligible for free school meals, and this does not change depending on the number of children in a household. Thousands of children living in poverty don’t meet this threshold.

Free school meal eligibility should be extended to the children of all families receiving Universal Credit or equivalent benefits.

The boroughs of Newham, Tower Hamlets, Islington and Southwark have begun to lead the way with Universal Free School Meals for primary school students.

And with the Christmas school holidays approaching, free schools meals need to be provided during school closures to prevent children from going hungry.

A Childhood Hunger Commission

These are important short-term measures.

In the longer run, as the London Assembly have recommended, the Mayor, London Councils, and organisations campaigning on child poverty and food insecurity should form a Childhood Hunger Commission for London.

This would investigate the causes and impacts of childhood hunger in London, produce an action plan to eradicate child hunger, and call on the Government and local authorities to do the same.

As Katherine Hill explained at the London Conference, we need to view children in London in the same way that we do London’s transport – as an integral part of the city’s infrastructure.

We cannot turn our backs on London’s children. We need to act now.

Read more from Centre for London’s cost of living crisis blog series: