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Children growing up in poverty endure hunger and shame


Children in low-income families are going hungry and are being exposed to feelings of shame and social exclusion because of lack of money and food, new research from UCL, published by Child Poverty Action Group shows.

Free school meals are not accessible to many children whose parents are on a low income and even when they are, the research finds, they may not provide enough food for children’s needs, especially in the teenage years, given daily allowances of just over £2. Some children in the study who came from the most severely deprived families, with no recourse to public funds (NRPF), simply did not eat at all during the school day.

The book, Living Hand to Mouth? Children and food in low-income families, written by researchers at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education, tells the stories of 51 UK children and their experiences of food at home, at school and in social settings. Part of a European study, the research involved 45 low-income families in two areas of South East England (an inner London borough and a seaside town). Focusing on children’s first- hand accounts and parents’ perspectives, it provides important new evidence on children’s lived experience of food poverty and its causes.

Key findings include:


  • Around one quarter of children in the study went hungry at times, despite the sacrifices their parents made

‘[…] I was so hungry […] it was like I got stabbed with a knife and it’s still there.’ (Emmanuel, age 14, inner London, whose family has NRPF)

‘When I’m hungry I just can’t concentrate, it’s really, really hard for me to do that…so I just need to make my mind up and know that I will eat after five hours, seven hours when I get home [from school].’ (Amara, age 15, inner London, whose family has NRPF)

One teenage girl, whose father (a widower) was in a low-paid NHS job, had £2 per day to spend on food at school (as did her siblings). She was sometimes forced to divide this so that she had £1 for a snack at break (by which time she was hungry) and £1 for lunch, which meant she did not always eat a proper meal.

  • Just over half (23 of the 45) of parents in the study ate too little food, went hungry, skipped meals and/ or used food banks

‘…last week I didn’t even eat for four days. […] And […] I have to lie to my kids and tell them I’ve eaten so that they’re okay, because as long as my kids are eating then I’m okay.’ (Lone mother of three children, including Shaniya, age 11, inner London).

‘…as long as the kids are fed, we don’t care about us. We’ll sit, we’re happy to just sit there and have toast every evening, so we do cut back a lot.’ (Mother, care worker, zero hours contract, lives with father, full time, food retail and two children including Owen age 12, coastal town).

‘If there isn’t enough food, we’ll get it and sometimes mum will go hungry and starve and stuff. Even if it’s not that much food for me and [brother], it’s enough that we’ve actually had something, whereas mum hasn’t, and it gets a bit to the point where we’ll start feeling guilty because mum hasn’t had anything and we’ve had it.(Bryony, age 13, coastal town) ’

Free school meals:

  • While some schools do not differentiate between pupils entitled to free school meals and those who pay, other schools identify children on free school meals in particular by restricting the food options that they can select. This caused embarrassment for children:

‘…when she [lunchtime staff at the checkout] was like “You can’t get that, you’re free school meals” like I was really embarrassed cos people were waiting behind me, I was kind of like “Oh my God”…. And it’s like you’re really restricted to what you can eat with free school meals. …, so now I just get what I know I’m safe with…so a small baguette and carton of juice.’ (Maddy, age 16, inner London, receives free school meals)

‘It’s embarrassing, yeah, you have no money on your card and then you just watch them eat.’ (Gideon, age 15, inner London, whose family has NRPF)

‘…The baguettes, you can tell in size which one’s which. But like the sandwich boxes, one’s black and one’s brown, and I’m allowed the brown one not the black one. But thing about the baguettes is that if you’re not free school meals, then you get to have bigger food … which I don’t see why. And also they have cheesecakes, so .. but there’s the smaller version and there’s the bigger version. And if you’re not free school meals you get to have the bigger version, and if you are you have to have the small version.’ (Murad, age 12, inner London).

  • Children whose families have NRPF – usually because of unresolved immigration status – are not entitled to free school meals. But while some schools fund lunches for these children, others do not, with the result that children in these families simply go hungry during school.

‘Sometimes you don’t have enough energy, you cannot cope in the classroom so you have to like try and rest a bit. You just put your head on the table and you end up falling asleep in the classroom and you get in trouble for it.’ (Emmanuel, age 14, inner London, see below).

Food, socialising and belonging:

  • Just over half the young people did not have money to spend on food with their friends.

Some reported that their friends sometimes shared some of their own food, but as one of two brothers says: ‘… it’s only they want to give you like a bit, cos, it’s theirs, only a little bit.’

Gideon, 15, inner London : ‘Feels like I’m left out of the fun that happens and stuff. Like it just makes me feel empty.’

Emmanuel, 14, Gideon’s brother: ‘It makes me feel, like. What have I done? Like, what have I done?’


  • Most children and parents in the study were knowledgeable about dietary recommendations. Many parents said they would like to be able to afford more fresh vegetables and fruit.

‘I need to be careful of how much starch and carbohydrates I’m putting into my son’s body, which doesn’t help because this is the food that I’m only able to buy because I can’t afford more of the fruits and vegetables that he needs.’ (Shaniya’s mother, inner London. whose son has a bowel disorder)

Just over half (26 of 48) of the children who completed the question in the self-completion questionnaire reported eating vegetables at least 5-6 times a week and only just over a third (17 of 47) reported eating fruit at least 5-6 times a week – far lower than the recommended five a day for fruit and vegetables.

Larger and lone parent families are more at risk of food poverty reflecting the distribution of poverty more broadly.

Commenting on the research findings, Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group Alison Garnham said:

‘The young people in this study make the case for universal free school meals more powerfully than anyone else could. Their hunger, their shame, their sense of being cut off from learning and social opportunities – all because parents can’t afford enough food – are appalling in a society that believes every child matters. Universal free school meals should be part of the solution but wider Government action is needed – urgently – to eradicate the poverty that underlies children’s hunger. As a minimum, free school meals should be restored for all families on universal credit.

“It is time to rebalance family budgets after years of austerity and rising child poverty. The priority should be lifting the freeze on working and non-working benefits so that they rise again with inflation.’

Co- author Rebecca O’ Connell said:

‘In the UK, we are living in a period of deep political and economic uncertainty. Given the UK’s planned exit from the European Union, the implementation of further cuts to welfare benefits and rising inflation (including food prices), the plight of families who are struggling to feed themselves is unlikely to improve. Food poverty and its effects on children’s and young people’s physical and emotional wellbeing is a matter of grave concern. In the face of piecemeal responses and government neglect, the outlook is set to remain bleak. Radical change is needed. To tackle the food poverty of children and families, the government should make use of research on budget standards to ensure that wages and benefits, in combination, are adequate for a socially acceptable standard of living and eating, which recognises the fundamental role of food in health and social inclusion’.


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