“Just checking the Stock Market on my £20,000 taxpayer-funded app”
Evidence is mounting that thousands of children in the UK are not getting enough food to eat – and that, as financial hardship spreads, their numbers are increasing rapidly.
Chris is 10. He and his brother are so malnourished that their skins are pale and they have rings under their eyes. Their older brothers have such an unhealthy diet that they have lost their adult teeth. They live in the sixth-richest city in the world – London. The boys are just four among thousands of Britain’s hungry children – victims of a “silent epidemic” of malnutrition in the capital and beyond.
Kids Company, which supports 13,000 children in London, has reported a dramatic increase in the number of children coming to its walk-in centres not in search of shelter or safety, but food. The situation is mirrored around the country. In Barnsley, child-support charities are working with parents who struggle to keep cupboards stocked with such staples as milk, bread and pasta. In Bristol, a youth project has gone from offering a place for teenagers to go for advice and support, to a place they go for a basic meal.
FareShare, a charity that redistributes surplus supermarket food, says soup kitchens, hostels and community groups are struggling to meet demand from parents and young people “desperate” for handouts. Since October, 42 per cent of the groups it works with have faced rising demand for food.
Kids Company, founded in 1996 to provide practical, emotional and educational support to London’s most vulnerable children, has seen young people reduced to shoplifting, stealing from bins and eating raw meat. Every week, 70 new children visit the charity looking for support and a meal, compared with 30 a week last year.
Many hungry children are from immigrant families whose parents are not eligible to work or claim benefits. But working parents and those on state handouts are also struggling as the cost of living soars and the job market remains stagnant. “We are seeing effectively responsible parents who are just not managing to have food in the house,” said Kids Company’s founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh. “Children don’t have a public voice so they can’t tell us.”
The problem is perhaps most visible in schools. Kids Company cites five inner London schools where staff say between 70 and 80 per cent of pupils are affected by food insecurity – not always having food at home, nor knowing where the next meal is coming from.
But it is not just in the capital. A poll conducted in February by Mumsnet, the largest web forum for parents, found that one in five mothers was regularly missing a meal so her children could eat.
Meanwhile, evidence from Trussell Trust, which supports food banks that give meals to 120,000 people nationwide, also suggests that the problem is growing. Its executive chairman, Chris Mould, said there had been a “huge increase” in demand in recent months – and among the hungry were 36,000 children. Even though the service is expanding, the charity is discovering more and more people in food poverty, who increasingly rely on the charity sector. “What we have seen suggests there are thousands of people in this country going hungry – making hard choices between, fuel, warmth, transport and food,” he said. “The pressure falls hardest on mothers and children.”
For those on the front line, the problem is clear. “It’s all down to money,” said Charlotte Williams, who runs Station House, a community group providing childcare services in Thurnscoe, near Barnsley. “We are in a perfect storm. Working parents are having their hours cut and many are losing their jobs. Even where incomes are steady, the cost of living – gas, water, clothes – has gone up to the point that people are having to squeeze their food budget to afford other basics. Next week it will get even worse when working tax credits are cut.
“This week we gave out fresh fruit, and parents said this was great – that they hadn’t had it for some time.
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In 2012, thousands of children are starving on the streets of London:
The children arrive with the telltale signs: shrunken faces, sallow skin, dark rings around their eyes and rotting teeth.
Some of the 11-year-olds are so underweight and undersized they look like six-year-olds, and those aged six often look only three or four.
You do not expect to find severely malnourished children on the streets of London in 2012, three months before the city showcases itself for the Olympics, but workers employed by Kids Company — a charity feeding thousands of extremely vulnerable children — say that child hunger is on the rise and they see it daily at their network of street-level centres.
Young mother Susan Scott, 21, who arrived at Kids Company nine months ago weighing six-and-a-half stone, described what it felt like to go hungry. “It gives you a blinding headache, you’re constantly feeling sick, your belly’s hurting, your head’s hurting, you can’t concentrate. You feel irritable with your baby and wish it would go away.
“Me and my three-year-old daughter lived off cornflakes for two weeks every month because the £20 I had left for food after paying my other household bills ran out. I would fantasise about walking out of the supermarket with a trolley full of food like other mothers but I had no money so I ate secretly in the aisle without paying. I always went for sandwiches and yoghurt because they fill you up quick, but then I got caught and shamed and was told to leave. One time I didn’t eat for a week, except for water, and my stomach got full with gas. I just swelled up and I had to go to A&E.”
Today Susan, doing a midwifery access course, is no longer malnourished and goes to Kids Company for her main meal of the day, along with 2,000 young people they feed every week.
Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder and chief executive of Kids Company, said: “The number of children coming to us with hunger problems has increased five-fold in a decade and the number of children self-referring on a daily basis has doubled in the last year.
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