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Blog post

Food banks in schools and the ‘cost of living’ crisis

William Baker, Senior Lecturer, University of Bristol

In the UK, over 2.6 million children experience food insecurity, which is defined as those who have limited or unreliable access to food due to a lack of financial resources (Power et al., 2020; The Food Foundation, 2022). Food insecurity increased during the Covid-19 pandemic and is being made worse due to the current cost-of-living crisis. Hunger and a lack of access to adequate nutritious food are highly damaging for a range of child outcomes, including educational attainment (Heflin et al., 2020).

Responses to poverty and food insecurity have long been found in schools – from free school meals to breakfast clubs (Lambie-Mumford & Sims, 2018). Marcus Rashford’s campaign also raised the profile of child food insecurity, access to free school meals, and holiday hunger during the pandemic. However, the increase in the number of schools that now operate their own food banks has received very little attention so far. One study suggests that up to a fifth of schools now operate one or something similar (for example, a pantry or ‘free supermarket’ for parents) (Butler, 2021).

I am currently researching the phenomenon of food banks in schools. Using a mixture of interviews and ethnographic methods involving observing food banks in action, over the next year I will continue to explore why schools set up food banks, how they operate, and how they are experienced by those involved in using and running them – from teachers, school staff, pupils and parents.

‘Food banks in schools may also reflect the consequences of a decade of austerity, which decimated many public services and fuelled child poverty, the impact of the pandemic, and the failure of the government to protect children and families from the current cost-of-living crisis.’

The presence of food banks in schools raises a host of important questions. For example, one possible worry about the rise of food banks in schools is that it further reflects how schools have become a ‘fourth emergency service’ for families and that increasing responsibility is being placed on schools to make sure families’ basic needs are being met (Adams, 2019). Food banks in schools may also reflect the consequences of a decade of austerity, which decimated many public services and fuelled child poverty, the impact of the pandemic, and the failure of the government to protect children and families from the current cost-of-living crisis.

Schools are playing a key role in the fight against food insecurity by running food banks. There is much to admire here. However, whilst they are helping many families, one objection to food banks generally is that they tackle the symptom rather than the cause of the issue (Riches, 2018). It could be argued that tackling child food insecurity, and the poverty it reflects, is about making sure that people have access to secure employment with adequate pay, that a benefits system provides people with resources to buy sufficient food, and that there is further support for spiralling housing, heating and living costs. These are not issues that the education system or education policy can primarily solve.

This research project is particularly timely because as the cost-of-living crisis continues to unfold, with rapidly rising inflation and dizzyingly large increases to energy bills expected in October, the number of families struggling to access adequate levels of food will grow. It’s been said that many families will face a choice between ‘heating and eating’ in the coming months. Unfortunately, this may understate the problem: the squeeze on people’s incomes may be so tight that many low-income families may not be able to afford either paying their energy bills or buying sufficient food. This will have major consequences for large numbers of children and families. Understanding how schools respond to rapidly rising food insecurity and support families is crucial, as is hearing the perspectives of marginalised families struggling to access something so basic and important to all our lives: food.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the project or if you work in a school that runs a food bank, or something similar, then please contact me at will.baker@bristol.ac.uk.


References

Adams, R. (2019, March 15). Schools have become ‘fourth emergency service’ for poorest families. Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/mar/15/schools-have-become-fourth-emergency-service-for-poorest-families

Butler, P. (2021, March 4). One in five UK schools has set up a food bank in Covid crisis, survey suggests. Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/mar/04/rise-in-food-banks-in-uk-schools-highlights-depth-of-covid-crisis-survey

The Food Foundation. (2022). New data shows food insecurity major challenge to levelling up agenda. https://foodfoundation.org.uk/press-release/new-data-shows-food-insecurity-major-challenge-levelling-agenda

Heflin, C., Darolia, R., & Kukla-Acevedo, S. (2020). Exposure to food insecurity during adolescence and educational attainment. Social Problems, 69(2), 453–469. https://doi.org/10.1093/socpro/spaa036 

Lambie-Mumford, H., & Sims, L. (2018). ‘Feeding hungry children’: The growth of charitable breakfast clubs and holiday hunger projects in the UK. Children & Society, 32(3), 244–254. https://doi.org/10.1111/chso.12272 

Power, M., Doherty, B., Pybus, K., & Pickett, K. (2020). How Covid-19 has exposed inequalities in the UK food system: The case of UK food and poverty. Emerald Open Research.

Riches, G. (2018). Food Bank Nations: Poverty, corporate charity and the right to food. London: Routledge.