"Child poverty is not just for Christmas" - it will take more than free school meals to tackle hunger and inequality

A charity which works to improve opportunities for disadvantaged people has expressed fears that while coronavirus has highlighted social inequalities - it may have added decades onto the timeline to fix it.
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Zest, a registered charity working across disadvantaged parts of the city for the last 18 years, runs several activities and schemes around healthy lifestyles and says while the recent focus on child hunger, led by footballer Marcus Rashford and prompting national support following the government decision to withdraw free school meals during the holidays, has been "heartening", it should not be forgotten that this is not a new problem.

It comes as half term draws to a close and focus turns to the Christmas school holidays and how hungry kids will be cared for then .

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But, Dom Charkin, operations manager at Zest, warned that while goodwill, will again, see struggling families through the Christmas period - January will hit harder.

The issues of child hunger and poverty extend far beyond the school holidays says Leeds based charity, Zest.The issues of child hunger and poverty extend far beyond the school holidays says Leeds based charity, Zest.
The issues of child hunger and poverty extend far beyond the school holidays says Leeds based charity, Zest.

He told the Yorkshire Evening Post: "It's great to see that Leeds has pulled together as a city, and, the initiatives have been extremely heartening. It is great to see Marcus Rashford and other young footballers having a social conscience. The issue of child poverty is not a new one, it has been exacerbated by COVID but has been here a long time and certainly for the last ten years.

"For Christmas holidays I think we will see another wave of philanthropy that always happens at Christmas but I suppose the call is to businesses to get in touch with local charities to see what support you could offer - it needs to be done now.

"It is not just Christmas. January is a long, hard month and I imagine it (this January) will be longer and harder. People will have spent as much as they can to celebrate Christmas in a normal a way as possible. By the time January comes around, it will be even worse.

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"Child poverty is not just for Christmas, it is all year round. When you think about that philanthropy, please bear in mind this is a long term issue. It has taken a footballer to raise it but let's make sure it stays on the agenda."

Mr Charkin said that one of the things he would like to see as a result of Rashford's campaigning and national debate is a different approach to viewing and tackling social inequality as well as the issue of child poverty and hunger.

He calls for a more collaborative society while, in the meantime, Zest will continue to work on its projects relevant to the issue.

One of which is promoting the benefit of Healthy Start vouchers as uptake is lower than it could be. They are given to women who are on means tested benefits when they become pregnant. The vouchers are to the value of £3.10 a week to buy vitamins, fruit and vegetables and doubles when they have the child. A project worker has been taken on to find out why in Leeds they are not being taken up and what can be done to change that.

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The Jamie Oliver Ministry of Food project continues at its base in Leeds Kirkgate Market. It is a series of eight week courses teaching people how to make healthy and affordable meals using local products. They are taught face to face adhering to COVID guidelines but are also available online.

Zest also backs FoodWise, a city-wide campaign managed by Leeds Food Partnership which aims bring together and highlight people, projects, organisations and businesses that deliver good food work across Leeds.

He added: "It is up to us as a society to make sure that these issues are kept on the agenda to work to try and overcome but that will not be a short term solution. These are structural issues that will take a long time. Judith Blake said last year it will take 25 years but that was pre-COVID, add another 25 years now and we might be getting there."

In the meantime, Leeds City Council is already planning ahead to have measures in place help struggling families and children over the Christmas break. It will be using the money left in the Healthy Holidays programme, which was £113,000, but was nowhere near enough to feed the 28,000 plus children in the city that are in receipt of free school meals.

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But, with the monies donated by Leeds United and private donations, as well as having more time to plan, it is hoped a more structured approach can be taken, but some children will still miss out.

Coun Jonathan Pryor, Executive Member for Learning, Skills and Employment said: "Getting through half term was the first priority now we are looking towards the longer Christmas holiday.

"The vote came a day before the holidays, it was a real scramble. We have got a bit more time to prepare for Christmas and hope to have more of a formal structure. We can't do everything but there is a lot we can do."

He says the authority will still be running the Healthy Holidays programme even though that does not cover all the children on free school meals and cover will vary depending upon what support is in place locally but, like half term, is likely to be take-away meals from restaurants, grab bags of food or schools issuing vouchers.

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The free school meals scheme would be a better arrangement, added Coun Pryor and there are plans at national level for the Labour party to push for another Commons vote on the issue.

Coun Pryor added: "At least with free school meals there is a base line that no-one will go below. We are going to see so many families in a worse position, so many more children that need free school meals and so I hope that with the spending review they look again and not just at Christmas."

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