‘Holiday hunger’: inflation adds to family strain as UK schools break for summer

“My eldest daughter really likes cooking things like pancakes but I’ve had to reduce the number of eggs we buy and watch how much milk we drink,” says Victoria, a single mother of four school-age children, of the difficult choices she is making as food costs soar.

“It sounds horrible but I have had to reduce everything,” she continues. “I’ve changed from using soft spreads, because they’re so expensive. I find using block butter works out cheaper. What’s in my cupboard at the moment is just pasta, cereal, baked beans and bread – most of it’s from food banks.”

As the summer holidays get under way after most schools in England and Wales broke up this week, like many families Victoria is worried about the extra financial strain caused by the long break, with official figures showing inflation has hit a fresh 40-year high of 9.4%.

Rising grocery bills were one of the major forces driving up living costs, with sharp increases in the price of staples such as milk, butter and eggs propelling annual food price inflation to 9.8%.

The pressure on household finances means food banks are reporting soaring demand for holiday care packages. On Friday, the Central England Co-op food bank launched an urgent appeal for groceries such as UHT milk, pasta sauce and tinned vegetables as donations slump across the sector just as more people are asking for help.

Dawn Stanford, the operations director at the Nourish community food bank in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, says demand is high for its “holiday hunger” packs, which supplement its normal food parcels. The extras include spreadable butter, cheese and eggs, which some people now consider unaffordable, she says.

Price increases in this area are startling: the average price of a pint of milk is now 55p, 13p more than a year ago, while a 500g container of spreadable butter costs just under £4, roughly 70p more than a year ago. Cheddar cheese is nearly £7 a kilogram, up from about £6.20. It all adds up to a predicted £454 increase in the average annual grocery bill.

“We find that it’s the families where both parents are working hard that are hit hardest,” says Stanford. “They often need to find extra money for holiday childcare and additional meals. These are people the school helps during term, maybe with uniforms, trips or from their discretionary funds, but don’t get free school meals.”

Victoria, a mother of four from Bath
Victoria, a mother of four from Bath. ‘I sit my children down with their food and have whatever is left over for my main meal.’ Photograph: Action for Children

The 1.7 million children eligible for free school meals are supported by the government’s holiday activities and food (HAF) programme, which gives grants to local authorities in England to provide free activities and meals over the summer break.

“It started with a trickle but this week has been crazy, crazy, crazy,” says Stanford. Last week the food bank received 21 referrals from one primary school in the town. The holidays can be a pressure point for working parents, she adds, and the “only flexible budget in the household is food”.

Donations make up less than a quarter of the food the charity hands out and the gaps on its shelves reveal areas where prices have jumped, such as instant coffee, which has gone up 50p to £3.25 for a 100g jar. “We hardly get any tinned fish donated any more,” she says. “We don’t get coffee very often either and are seeing a real drop in donations of cereal.”

Neil Thompson and his partner, Jess, who live in Bridlington in east Yorkshire with their five children aged between four and 14, are struggling with rising bills. He receives tax credits but his wages, from his job in a potato factory, are above the threshold for free school meals. He does not know yet whether the family will receive the cost of living payments, worth a total of £650, that were announced by the government in May.

“Food prices are going crazy at the minute,” says Thompson. “We’ve cut sweets, cakes and ice-creams – all the fancy bits – and just get the basics like fresh and meal stuff.” The family relies on the Hinge Centre in Bridlington, part of the FareShare network, for discounted groceries as well as food parcels.

Peter Taylor-Gooby, a professor of social policy at the University of Kent, who is also a trustee of the Canterbury and District food bank in Whitstable, says rising prices are adding to its shopping bill as donations decline and user numbers soar. It spent £800 on food in the year to July 2019 but the equivalent figure for this year will exceed £35,000. It expects to hand out about 500 holiday parcels, nearly a fifth more than two years ago.

“I think it is very serious, it is a real food emergency,” he says of a worrying picture being repeated across the country. “Universal credit benefits have been held down for an awful long time now and in October we had the withdrawal of the £20 uplift. I’m worried about what will happen in October when energy prices go up.”

Victoria, who lives in Bath, is already skipping meals and filling up on cups of tea. She cannot work due to her youngest child’s additional needs and is being helped by the charity Action for Children.

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“I sit my children down with their food and have whatever is left over for my main meal,” she says. “I never have the TV on when I’m on my own and I try and do just one load of washing a week. That’s really difficult when you’re a family of five.”

Imran Hussain, Action for Children’s director of policy and campaigns, says the benefits system is not keeping pace with the cost of living crisis.

“We’re not really a child poverty charity but all our frontline staff say poverty is getting in the way of the work we are trying to do,” he says. “We offer targeted services but if what’s going wrong is everyone’s stressing about food and parents are skipping meals it makes everything else so much harder.”


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