Image: 'Empty Kitchen' from Christophe De Mulder's Flickr Photostream

The cost of the school holidays makes them a crunch point for families paying the price of austerity politics. Children who benefit from free school lunches are often going hungry once their school shuts for the holidays. The cost of holiday childcare and cuts to council services mean that play and sports activities, as well as food, are also now in short supply for many of the poorest children. Missing meals, sedentary behaviour and social isolation in the school holidays will reinforce health inequalities at a young age – and it undermines the success of free school breakfast and lunch policies. New community partnerships are now forming to prevent holiday hunger, although a much stronger political commitment will also be needed to meet children’s need for food and fun projects in the school holidays.

Holiday hunger isn’t a completely new issue and it’s impossible to estimate the exact extent of the problem, or how much it’s getting worse, but there’s evidence to suggest it’s becoming more widespread and acute. The demand at food banks spikes dramatically in the school holidays – including in the half-term holidays when schools are only closed for one week. The problem isn’t limited to non-working households either. A report from researchers at Glasgow University found the cost of school holidays is a now major source of stress and food insecurity for low-income working parents as well as those out of work.

The roll out of universal credit is likely to compound these problems further. Half of low paid workers are currently paid weekly but a built-in delay to universal credit requires claimants to wait at least 42 days before receiving a benefit payment. Families with three or more children will suffer particularly badly as a result of welfare and working tax credit reforms. The largest families are also those hit hardest by the cost of missing out on free school breakfasts, lunches and sports activities for 14 holiday weeks every year.

In this context, new community projects are now emerging to address holiday hunger. There are examples of successful community partnership projects from that USA, which use school facilities to provide healthy meals, sports and other activities to poor children out of term time. The UK All Party Parliamentary Group on School Food published a report about Filling the Holiday Gap that highlights some similar innovations in the UK, although these are still typically just small scale pop-up projects, relying on local activism, and lacking sustainable funding.

One of the most comprehensive models developed so far in the UK to tackle holiday hunger is in Cardiff where health, local authority and community sports partners have developed a new, free ‘food and fun’ project for primary school children living in deprived areas. The problem of school holiday food insecurity and social isolation is becoming particularly acute in Wales. The universal provision of free breakfasts at primary schools in Wales, as well as free school lunches for families on low income, means that many families now rely on schools for two meals a day in term time. The cost of some holiday schemes has also increased by 70% since 2014, yet it’s the area with the highest child poverty rate in the UK.

The Cardiff project was piloted in summer 2015 as part of Food Cardiff’s Beyond the Food Bank campaign. They had enough funding to work in five primary schools, 3 days a week for 4 weeks to provide healthy lunches, sports, and some food education and skills. Parents and siblings could also join the children for lunch once a week. Projects like this can also help ensure children from low income families have more learning opportunities in the holidays to prevent them falling behind their peers and reinforcing educational inequalities.

More than a third of the children who attended the pilot scheme in Cardiff in 2015 reported missing a meal on at least one day when the holiday programme wasn’t open. This means that this Easter holiday these children will be going hungry again as the project isn’t running. It will run again this summer but still only in a limited number of primary schools. The challenge is to meet children’s basic needs all year round and beyond Cardiff. There are likely to be wider economic benefits of scaling up healthy holiday activity projects too, such as through creating new jobs in poor communities. In the absence of addressing inequality and poverty more directly through tax and welfare reforms, which the devolved governments have little scope to do, further investment in holiday projects is essential.