8 Feb 2012

Breakfast club boom reveals reality of child poverty

A charity that provides free breakfasts to primary schools tells Channel 4 News it has seen a four-fold rise in its waiting list in the last four months, amid fears child poverty is on the rise.

Breakfast club boom reveals reality of child poverty (Getty)

The charity Magic Breakfast has been providing free breakfasts for nine years to UK primary schools where over 50 per cent of pupils are on free school meals.

But in the last four months, its waiting list has gone from 20 schools to 80 – and rising. The charity, which won a “Big Society” award last year, provides food for 6,000 children in 200 schools and is now struggling to meet the increased demand.

Founder Carmel McConnell told Channel 4 News: “All of those application forms from schools – it’s stories of real deprivation, where kids are going home to empty cupboards.”

FareShare, an umbrella organisation representing 700 food charities, has also reported a doubling of in demand for its breakfast club and youth services from 2008 to 2011.

It’s stories of real deprivation, where kids are going home to empty cupboards. Carmel McConnell, Magic Breakfast founder

The increased reliance on food charities follows recent predictions from the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) that the government is unlikely to hit its target to eliminate child poverty by 2020.

According to a new report from the End Child Poverty campaign, one in three children – or almost four million – currently lives in poverty in the UK. What this means is that the children live in households where the income is below 60 per cent of the median UK household income.

And the forecast is that this is going to get worse. The IFS predicts that the number of children in relative child poverty will rise by 400,000 from 2010/11 to 2015/16, and that absolute poverty will rise by 500,000. This basically means that there will be another 100,000 children living in poverty each year.


‘In work’ poverty

The latest analysis from the IFS found a sharp rise in the number of children with at least one working parent who are living in poverty.

“This is an early warning sign that a growth in in-work poverty could be fed by an increase in the number of families where a single wage is insufficient to make ends meet,” the report read.

The parents that rely on Magic Breakfast are from a range of backgrounds, said the charity’s Mrs McConnell.

“There are some families who are looking for work and on benefits, and there are some families who are working very hard but not earning very much,” she told Channel 4 News.

“The fact is that if there are jobs out there for many of our families, they’re long hours for very low pay. So they’re not going to be there in the morning.”

Maria Olesen from FareShare also told Channel 4 News that the profile of clients relying on food banks and food charities has changed.

“Anecdotal evidence tells us that it’s not always the clients who have always struggled – who are homeless or sleeping rough,” she said.

“There are more and more single parents, families on low income, families where if the sole breadwinner loses their job, they have a huge drop in income. They are struggling to put food on the table – some people have to choose between heating and food.”

Keyworth Primary School

Pupils at Keyworth Primary School, south London, are fans of the bagels, rice crispies and orange juice provided free of charge every morning.

Since Magic Breakfast started providing free breakfasts at the school a year ago, the number of pupils at the breakfast club jumped from 40 to over 70, plus reception and nursery pupils.

Assistant headteacher Claire Eastwood told Channel 4 News that the difference when children are given healthy food in the morning is noticeable.

But teachers have noticed that more families are struggling. As well as an increased reliance on the club, fewer parents at Keyworth are able to afford to pay for school trips, and more parents are sending their children to school with packed lunches instead of paying for school meals.

Ms Eastwood also points out that some of her pupils don’t yet have leave to remain status, which means they don’t qualify for free school meals.

“They don’t have money to pay for school meals, but they’re not entitled to free school meals either,” she said.

Government policy

In the IFS report on child poverty, the organisation acknowledged that, in the long term, the government’s introduction of Universal Credit to replace the current benefits system will have an impact on reducing child poverty.

But there are fears from other camps that children could be disproportionately hit by the benefits system reform.

For families that are just above the breadline that are working very hard, it’s really tough. Carmel McConnell, Magic Breakfast founder

A recent rebellion in the House of Lords aimed to prevent a household benefits cap of £26,000 for this very reason. One of the amendments was to remove child benefit from the cap to ensure that families with lots of children were not unfairly targeted – but it was reversed in the House of Commons and will go ahead unchanged.

Tim Nichol from the Child Poverty Action Group said that the government’s own impact assessment shows that children are nine times more likely to hit by the benefit cap than adults are.

Read more: Food poverty on the rise as recession hits home

“That’s because families with children have the biggest spending needs and the government refuses to make any allowances for the number of the children in a household when it’s setting the cap,” he told Channel 4 News.

A spokesperson from the Department of Work and Pensions said the government has taken practical steps to help families in difficulty.

And he added: “The best way to improve the life chances of children is for their parents to be in work. The current system doesn’t make work pay and can lead to a spiral of dependency spanning generations – that is why our reforms are urgently needed.

“We are setting a £26,000 cap for benefit claimants – to tackle the problem of welfare dependency and encourage people into the labour market.”

However campaigners remain concerned that the problem of child poverty is showing no signs of easing.

“The recession is really hitting this country. And for families that are just above the breadline that are working very hard, it’s really tough,” Mrs McConnell told Channel 4 News.