What should be a time of seasonal enjoyment for many youngsters is in fact a battle against food poverty, with families unable to afford basic meals and other necessities.
The reason is ‘holiday hunger’ – a phenomenon caused by the Christmas break and the absence of free school meals which provide the only source of nutrition for hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged children across Britain.
As schools prepare to close for two weeks, Loughborough University has teamed up with the charity StreetGames, as part of its Christmas and New Year health and wellbeing campaign - #LboroExperts - to raise awareness of the issue.
It comes as the homeless charity Shelter announced on Wednesday that more than 128,000 children will be homeless on Christmas Day.
Loughborough University’s Dr Clare Holley, an expert in child feeding, said the absence of free dinners is even more important during the holiday season as family budgets are stretched even more than usual.
She said: “Christmas is a particularly expensive time of year for all families, where the financial strain of childcare and gift-giving means many families are having to their make money go even further.
“Many parents are faced with the difficult choice of either heating their homes or feeding their families.
“What’s more, community provisions which may normally support struggling families are often understaffed or operating reduced service over the festive period, with volunteers caring for their own families and taking a well-deserved break.
“All of this combined with the absence of free school dinners puts a great many children at risk of holiday hunger.”
Figures from the Government show there are 667,000 children who attend state-funded schools who rely on the balanced diet they get from free school dinners each day.
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 ‘holiday hunger’ academics from Loughborough have teamed up with StreetGames on an initiative called Fit and Fed, which aims to ease the impact of food poverty for families all over the UK.
The scheme gets kids active in a variety of community events and provides food, with some support from food charities and community food providers.
So far this year, it has delivered more than 80,000 meals to 12,500 participants at 251 sites.
Dr Holley said: “By the end of primary school, pupils receiving free school meals are estimated to be 1.5 school years behind children with more financially secure backgrounds.
“Moreover, research suggests that six to 11-year-old children from ‘food insufficient’ families score significantly lower on maths tests, and are at an increased risk of mood and anxiety disorders, as well as substance abuse.
“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 seeks to feed children experiencing holiday hunger - often due to a lack of free school meals - by providing free meals and snacks at summer sports clubs, predominantly 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 had improved nutritional knowledge, a broader diet, and ate more fruits and vegetables,” said Dr Holley.
“They also showed improvements in mood, concentration and behaviour, and were able to take part in shared mealtimes and team sports – both of which have known benefits.
“The importance of this experience 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.”
Between April 2016 and March 2017, the Trussell Trust’s foodbank network provided 1,182,954 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis, which included 436,938 food parcels to children, and the service has seen a 13% increase in demand compared to last year.
“This suggests that this issue is growing,” said Dr Holley. “Which means effective solutions must be developed.”
Loughborough University’s Christmas and New Year health and wellbeing campaign is aimed at using the knowledge and experience of academics and professionals to give advice about physical and mental wellness over the festive season and into next year.