This provides children with at least one meal a day as well as activities but is only automatically available to children entitled to free school meals (FSM), leaving lots of vulnerable families without the help they need during school holidays, including Christmas.
For months footballer and campaigner Marcus Rashford has been part of a campaign urging the government to expand the eligibility criteria for free school meals, which currently requires families to have an annual income of less than £7,400 before benefits.
The government-commissioned National Food Strategy report, published in the summer, recommended the cap be increased to £20,000 before benefits to ensure over a million students aren’t going hungry during term time.
Expanding FSM eligibility could stop children going hungry during the school holidays too, as they would gain access to HAF.
The Breakfast Box programme, funded by the Betty Messenger Charitable Foundation, is providing 770 boxes – enough food for 3,850 healthy breakfasts – to eight Tower Hamlets schools for families to collect ahead of the Christmas holiday.
Data provided by the schools show that a third of the students identified as in need of the boxes are not currently receiving FSM, and will therefore be without access to HAF this Christmas.
School Food Matters chief executive Stephanie Slater said: “It’s heart-breaking to know that so many families are heading into the holiday period struggling to feed their children. Government has recognised that support is vital for vulnerable families during the school holidays and has responded with the HAF programme. But the next step must be to extend eligibility as too many children are missing out and it cannot be left to charities to fill the hunger gap.”
Lansbury Lawrence School headteacher Owen O’Regan added: “Too many children across Tower Hamlets and the country live in food poverty and children cannot learn and thrive when they are hungry. Communities strengthened and came together during the school closures to better understand and support these children and their families.
“Schools are closed for 13 weeks a year, and schemes like the Holiday Activities and Food programme can make a real difference to children’s lives, who need all the support that we can give them.”
Betty Messenger Trustee Robert Wallis said: “It is unacceptable in today’s modern society that families are going hungry and unable to feed their children properly. The issues facing schools are vast and need a holistic approach to directly support children.
“May we all be nourished and never allow fellow humans to fall through the cracks of modern so-called civilisation. Simple, direct action is required, and we are delighted to support this crucial endeavour”.
During Covid, School Food Matters switched focus from educating children and schools about healthy food to distributing food parcels in response to the crisis, delivering more than one million breakfasts to vulnerable families across London to date.
In light of the Marcus Rashford campaign, the government also expanded the HAF programme to all local authorities across England in 2021. And in October, it announced £200m a year for the scheme to continue.
Government rules allow some non-FSM children to access HAF for free in limited circumstances, but the local authority must get written permission, and even then, can only use up to 15 per cent of its HAF funding on those students.
Tower Hamlets is seen as an area that would benefit more than most from expanding access to FSM, and therefore HAF, with 28 percent of children in the borough living in a low-income family, rising to 56 per cent once housing costs are taken into account, according to government statistics.
Although Tower Hamlets is one of only four local authorities in England which funds free school meals for all primary school students, this doesn’t enable more families to access HAF.
Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs said: “It is a sad reality that the support extended by central government is not enough, with many families living in food poverty in Tower Hamlets and elsewhere. It falls to local authorities, voluntary, community and charitable organisations to fill in the gaps.
“Organisations like School Food Matters remain essential to support those families on the edge of eligibility who don’t qualify for free school meals as they need help to feed their families. I’m grateful to them for providing boxes of food to local families this Christmas”. www.schoolfoodmatters.org