Free school meals are not the only tool we need to fight poverty

The writer is an artist, aspiring novelist and hopeful academic, weathering the pandemic with retail work

There was a time in my life, not so long ago, when if it weren’t for the free meals provided at school, my two brothers and I probably wouldn’t have eaten much at all.

When my parents’ relationship broke down, my dad moved with us from Northern Ireland to live in Merseyside, closer to his hometown. We were young, between the ages of three and six, and dad gave up work to stay home raising us. We were a single-parent family relying on benefits. Dad was silent about his struggles, owing to his insecurity and the stigma that surrounds poverty. We got by with help from the school meals scheme and the kindness of the few people that my dad became able to trust.

This month, as the Covid-19 pandemic surges to a second wave in the UK, child poverty has become an urgent issue. Many families are struggling with unemployment, inadequate furlough and sick pay, cuts to their hours and sickness and bereavement. In England, the lifeline that free school meals represents to many is now under threat.

The row over school meals first came to a head in June, when footballer and activist Marcus Rashford successfully petitioned the UK government to do a U-turn and extend free school meals over the summer holidays. But, as the autumn half-term break begins, politicians are again refusing to provide meal vouchers. The debate rages anew.

Many have passionately defended the scheme (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have said they will continue to provide meals). But unfortunately, the discussion has also given voice to abundant ignorance on the subject of poverty: Should people have kids if they can’t afford them? Why can’t you feed a family adequately while on benefits? Should people be allowed to buy mobile phones if food is an issue?

To me, this ignorance has been painful to see. It’s evident that there are many people who have no idea know how complex the issue is. Poverty is not caused by parents blowing their money — whether wages or benefits. Ironically, it’s often very expensive to be poor. 

In my family, new clothes were a quickly outgrown luxury. We usually made do with hand-me-downs from friends and neighbours. We couldn’t afford to buy appliances in a single payment so we relied on payment schemes loaded with interest. We struggled for years as old appliances broke down, the cumulative monthly payments devouring our paltry income. Cars were ancient bangers that always seemed to fail their MOT tests; we spent a lot of time walking.

All four of us were prone to headaches and fatigue (I would have migraines and panic attacks at least twice a week). Looking back, I realise that we were probably malnourished. What food we could get had to be cheap, long-life, high in calories but poor in nutritional value.

Mum did her best, considering that she was across the sea, buying clothes and toys, helping with food costs and giving us holidays — usually a joyous fortnight in the summer. But she had her own struggles, and if dad didn’t ask (which he often didn’t, out of embarrassment) she couldn’t know to help.

My brothers and I had it hard, but we did most of our growing up before the decade of austerity measures that were brought in after the 2008 financial crisis. Far from using our survival to shame others who suffer today, I despair at the thought of how much harder it must be for people struggling now. It’s especially vital in the pandemic that vulnerable people are helped without being judged.

The stigma around poverty is everywhere. We couldn’t hide our greasy hair while rationing shampoo, our well-worn clothes or the fact that we were all fairly skinny. But dad hid the extent of our poverty from us. He wanted us to have as normal a childhood as possible considering our upheaval, but there was also the shame. That is why I only learnt the severity of our situation after his death.

People living in poverty are thrust into the shadows at the edge of society, by a stigma that says they are failures for living in a situation that is often beyond their control. So the true depth of their hardship goes unseen.

Dealing with poverty in the UK requires more than fighting about voucher systems and benefits payments. Instead of shaming, and pushing people further into despair, we must address the root problems — high living costs, the scant availability of quality social housing, mental and physical healthcare and access to childcare, to name a just few.

It’s heartwarming to see local businesses (some of which have struggled intensely during the pandemic) going above and beyond to help those in need. But there’s a bitter edge to my appreciation. I know that these people are picking up the government’s slack. Especially in these exceptional times, it feels as if the government has dropped the ball in caring for our most vulnerable.


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