Food Poverty, Policy and Free School Meal Provisions

Line drawing of food and cooking utensils

Dominic Watters*

I am a single dad. My daughter and I live in the most deprived blocks of our council estate. Here our access to fresh food is overlooked. There is a shop on our estate, but it only sells the lowest quality of processed ‘food’. This means in the so-called Garden of England, we live in a food desert. There are no local shops where I can top up our gas or electricity. When you’re on “emergency”, it feels like your life is a constant emergency. If the electricity runs out in the middle of the night, anything in the freezer is ruined by the morning, you can’t turn on a light, you can’t have a shower. In this way, food insecurity is not experienced in isolation, it’s always coupled with other inequalities that impact your wellbeing. It must be hard for people reading who haven’t lived this to truly understand how much poverty dictates what you eat, especially if you live in a food desert.

I felt grateful to be asked to speak about my lived experience of food insecurity on the news. But I sit here and think this isn’t my ‘lived experience’, this is what I am currently living.

In my first book I developed the idea of ‘living experience’, as what we go through isn’t a thing of the past. It is happening right here, right now. This is our daily reality and lives on through our families, through a sense of being slighted by society, and the hopelessness I feel trying to be heard in the face of snobbery. Living experience stresses that this struggle is far from over and speaks to the oppressive and urgent nature of the inequalities resulting from poverty. 

Raw ingredients are often a luxury now for the poor due to the cost of cooking. I hear my neighbours talking about spending all day on the bus, travelling from supermarket to supermarket to get the cheapest deals on microwave meals, washing clothes less to save four pounds a month on electricity and I hear the children saying about the art and drama clubs they can’t afford to attend. The poor have always been in a cost-of-living crisis, but it’s now at the point where our aspirations are being dimmed daily without a glimpse of a way out. Universal Credit is not fit for purpose as the constraints do not provide disadvantaged families with any hope of flourishing in society.

I am uncertain if the systems in place are aimed to support us or hold us back. For transformative change to take place it needs to be informed by a living experience of these processes.

An example of what I mean can be seen from the insight I can provide through my living experience of Free School Meals. The cost of food has risen at the fastest rate in 45 years, yet the amount each disadvantaged child gets is the same amount from before the price increases. This means my daughter often texts me, “Dad can you top up my thumb”, so she can afford to pay for her free lunch. Children in receipt of ‘Free’ School Meals are regularly going without and hunger doesn’t help you learn.

There is a conversation to be had around choice. The kids at the high school on my estate often queue outside the estate shop to buy the processed heated chicken nuggets and chips. Because our environment is drenched in poverty, if the young people want to express their choice in food, the options and access to nutrition is limited. There is also an urgent discussion to be had around the holiday food vouchers that Marcus Rashford passionately campaigned for, and the government voted against. As a parent in receipt of these vouchers I can tell you that some local authorities issue them significantly under the nationally recommended amount and therefore create deeper geographic food insecurity amongst vulnerable communities. Although there is a welcome increase of media focus on Free School Meals, these discussions are being dominated by people whose children are not on Free School Meals reflecting a continued disconnection with unheard voices. 

I would therefore like to use this opportunity to kindly ask that the five below policy recommendations are heard and considered. This request is made in the hope that I have begun to demonstrate the value of living experience knowledge as a way to bring about sustainable change:

  1. Any upscaling or universalising of Free School Meals (FSM) needs to include a targeted measure of additional support for those kids currently eligible.
  1. The amount provided via FSM needs to be reviewed urgently, and prior to any upscaling, to reflect the fastest price rises of food in 45 years. 
  1. The holiday food vouchers should be distributed at the nationally recommended amount and steps should be taken to ensure local authorities follow this guidance.
  1. Universal Credit should be increased in line with the price rises of food, fuel, and other daily costs. This measure will help parents move their families out of absolute poverty.
  1. Policymakers should be encouraged to engage with living experience to develop and inform sustainable solutions. 

In this light, I welcome being contacted to discuss Free School Meal policy developments and food system transformation.

*This blog has been written for IPPO ahead of our online event on How Should Policymakers Respond to Growing Need for Emergency Food Services on April 10th at 10am. Please sign up here.

Do follow Dominic @SingleDadSW.