More free school meal vouchers is good news, but it doesn’t go far enough in tackling food poverty

Jess Phillips
·3 min read
Food deliveries from our appeal partner The Felix Project have been supporting the vulnerable throughout lockdown: SWNS
Food deliveries from our appeal partner The Felix Project have been supporting the vulnerable throughout lockdown: SWNS

It is incredibly hard to talk about food policy in the United Kingdom without having to navigate a number of minefields. There is the fat shaming and thin shaming to avoid, the obvious classist rhetoric that gets thrown around, and, for the hat-trick, the screams of those who fear the nanny state.

This week, a government-commissioned review into food and healthy eating said that free school meals should be extended to another 1.5 million children in England given the toxic connection between child poverty, poor diet and hunger.

The government has already in the last few days proven that it cares about the issue of obesity, largely because the prime minister has experienced it himself. If only he had ever had to wait for a universal credit payment, or not been able to pay for his kids’ education.

The government’s policy includes a ban on advertising fast food before the 9pm watershed and offering tax breaks on bikes up to £1,000. It is hard to deny that something needs to be done to tackle the health crisis caused by obesity and poor diet, so these actions are a good start. However, will the government be as quick to act for the poorest kids as they have for those who could afford to spend a grand on a bike?

I had no idea when I became a member of parliament that a huge chunk of my job would be about hunger, where I am essentially a part-time aid worker in the sixth richest country in the world. Every single working day without fail, at least one person comes into my office to receive a voucher for one of the many food banks in the area. My staff, family and friends often help out with the rota of cooking hot meals for constituents living for months in hotels and B&Bs, whose only cooking facilities are a one-cup kettle.

When we talk about food poverty in this country, there will always be column inches about how if poor people just learned to make chickpea curry or tagine then they too could eat for cheap. I challenge even the greatest domestic goddess to make a passable dish in a kettle the size of a thimble.

On election day in 2019, when I tweeted about giving out food vouchers, someone reported me to the police for “treating the electorate”. What a treat to give someone a piece of paper that helps them get a carrier bag of beans and spaghetti hoops, when they may be starving. Whoever reported me is not someone I would want to receive a Christmas gift from.

Throughout the Covid-19 crisis and the subsequent crisis in employment and household wealth, food insecurity has become even more core to my job as a local representative. I cannot say that the government acted particularly quickly to tackle this issue. The free school-meal voucher system that the government provided was slow, poorly targeted, and left teachers and staff in most cases making up food parcels from their own pockets because the system had crashed again.

The government was pushed by everyone’s favourite footballer Marcus Rashford, the opposition, and a few of their own MPs to ensure that children on free school meals were kept fed throughout the six-week summer holidays. It’s something that should have been a given.

Throughout the crisis there have been constant calls to end the five-week wait to receive an initial universal credit payment – this is the single biggest reason people cite when asking me for food bank vouchers. The government ignored it. So now, as the government’s own report tells us that food poverty and insecurity is causing long-term ill-health and obesity, will the government act? Or do they only act on the things that they have experienced? It’s time they had more empathy for the breadline as well as the waistline.