Tens of thousands of children across the UK will go hungry this summer because they rely on the help of schools and individual teachers who are stepping in to feed them during term time.
A report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger says up to 3 million children could be at risk of hunger: more than a million who receive free school meals, and a further 2 million who are disqualified from free school meals but come from families who are struggling to make ends meet.
Charities, community groups, and teachers who gave evidence to the group told of young people subsisting entirely on packets of crisps and parents staving off hunger with dinners consisting of flavoured water, cereal, or any scraps of food left on their children’s plates.
Teachers told MPs that children were coming to school after the summer showing marked signs of not having eaten properly over the six weeks. Several teachers described similar situations to BuzzFeed News, saying their schools or they personally had stepped in to feed hungry children.
Beverley Mason, who previously taught PHRSE at North Manchester High School for Girls, said she would regularly buy food for hungry pupils.
She said: "It was heartbreaking, these kids would come in after the summer, they'd be hungry, they'd be clamouring for attention, they'd be unkempt, they'd lost weight."
She said some students would turn up the next day having not eaten since their school lunch the day before, and on a Monday morning teachers would be able to tell that some children hadn't eaten properly since Friday.
"You'd notice a difference, they'd look ill, they'd look pale, they'd not had any food in them for a whole weekend," she said.
Mason said some of the pupils wouldn't eat because their parents hadn't provided them with food, while others had prioritised caring for younger siblings over feeding themselves.
Food banks have reported a surge in demand over the summer as parents struggle to find the money to pay for the extra meals provided at school lunches and breakfast clubs.
The group’s chair, Frank Field MP, urged all political parties to make a commitment to the project ahead of the upcoming general election, so that plans could be put in place to help children this summer.
He told BuzzFeed that providing meals to children at holiday activity clubs would also remove the stigma and shame of handouts.
He said: "It's an unnecessary national disgrace. It's urgent that we get this underway so that we can have it ready for the next summer holidays."
As well as highlighting the problem, the APPG has published a blueprint for the elimination of hunger among children during school holidays, which includes using money generate from the sugar tax to tackle the problem.
Ten per cent of the proceeds of the tax would be ring-fenced for "healthy pupil" projects, to fund a national programme of "free meals and fun" during school holidays.
Every local authority would be given a budget of £100,000, which would come with a statutory duty to team up with voluntary, private, and public sector organisations to ensure children are kept active and well-fed during the holidays.
Jane Ashworth, CEO of charity StreetGames, which provides sporting activities in disadvantaged communities across the country and is launching its Fit and Fed programme to address holiday hunger, had also noticed children going hungry during school holidays.
She told BuzzFeed News: "When we speak to community support workers they've always said there's kids coming to our activities who've not had a square meal.
"Terrible things are happening, we've had kids who are sick because they've not had anything to eat all day and then start running around. They're sick because there's nothing in their tummies."
Ema Wilkes runs the Neo Café in Birkenhead, which was set up by a group of mums on the Wirral and is part of Feeding Birkenhead’s school holiday meals and fun programme, which provides support to families who are struggling.
She told BuzzFeed News that families are going hungry but many parents will not access food banks as they do not want to admit that they're struggling, and that as such the true scale of the problem is unknown.
"None of us want to admit that the problem is growing, but it's a sharp reality that it is," she said. "Parents are missing meals – they're not just missing one meal, you've got parents that have missed two days of eating."
Wilkes said that in her experience families who did not want to visit food banks had been happy to engage with community projects, and said she supported the use of sugar tax money to fund groups in local areas, which she believes could provide a sustainable solution to the issue.
"People don't want someone to come along and put a plaster over it and say it's alright, because it's not," she said. "It's about fixing the problems."
Hannah Al-Othman is a political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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