What should be a time of festive enjoyment for Britain’s 4.6 million youngsters, aged between six and 16-years-old, is in many cases a battle against food poverty.
Figures from the Institute of Fiscal Studies show there are more than 1 million children in the UK who receive free school meals – an estimated 210,000 extra youngsters will be eligible after the rollout of universal credit.
However, 160,000 who are currently entitled to schools dinners will lose out under the new system – meaning a 4% increase of 50,000.
In many cases, school dinners are the main source of nutrition for youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Dr Clare Holley, of Loughborough’s, said: “During school holidays children do not receive their usual free meal, and families often have greater outgoings than during term time, meaning that even children who are not eligible for free school meals are at risk of holiday hunger.
“Christmas is a particularly expensive time of year for all families, where the financial strain of childcare and gift-giving means many families are under struggling.”
Research has shown that children with poor eating habits, who are not consuming a nutritious diet, display poorer cognitive, psychological and physical well-being.
In a bid to combat the negative implications of ‘holiday hunger’ academics from Loughborough have teamed up with the charity StreetGames on an initiative called Fit and Fed, which aims to ease the impact of food poverty for families all over the UK.
The initiative gets kids active in a variety of community events and provides food, with some support from food charities and community food providers.
Between April 2017 and March 2018, the Trussell Trust’s foodbank network provided 1,332,952 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis, which is a 13% increase compared to the last year.
What’s more, 484,026 of these food parcels went to children.
Credit: The Trussell Trust
So far this year, Fit and Fed has delivered more than 146,260 meals to 15,511 participants at 233 sites.
Dr Holley said: “Children receiving free school meals are estimated to be 1.5 school years behind children with more financially secure backgrounds by the end of primary school.
“Moreover, research suggests that children’s food insecurity is associated with poorer health, academic functioning, and social skills, as well as depression and anxiety, behavioural problems and obesity.
“By tackling holiday hunger, we can lessen the nutritional deficit that a significant proportion of UK children fall victim to, as well reducing the associated adverse consequences for the health and wellbeing of these children.”
The Fit and Fed project provides free food at summer sports clubs, to children living in the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK.
The initial success of the scheme has been investigated by Dr Holley and others at Loughborough.
The team conducted focus groups with group leaders who were taking part in the Fit and Fed pilot, to gain an insight into the possible positive outcomes of the Fit and Fed project, as well as the factors which influenced the success of the project.
“We found that children who participated in the project experienced a broader diet, ate more fruits and vegetables, and had improved nutritional knowledge,” said Dr Holley.
“They also showed improvements in behaviour, mood, and concentration and were able to take part in shared mealtimes and team sports – both of which have known benefits.
“The importance of these experiences should not be underestimated, with previous research asserting that shared mealtimes are associated with children having a reduced risk of substance abuse, improved language development, higher academic achievement, and reduced risk for paediatric obesity.”