By Laurie Davies
There is a lot of discussion and, obviously, disgust around what has been given to families in replacement of free school dinners.
Something that I think is being missed, as always, is why people are poor, the ways in which it is being made worse, why parents and carers should be trusted and given the agency to choose food for their children, and of course the type of meals children are offered in school compared what is being given out in those disgraceful packages.
This recent incident shouldn’t be a shock to us, it happened with the last lockdown and there was much horrific talk form leading MPs in government that parents couldn’t be trusted to spend their allocated money for school meals on food for their children and would instead spend it on booze and fags.
Poor and working-class parents were trashed in the papers with no actual evidence, a decisive way of drawing attention away from the failure of government.
For those that know me well you will probably know that in December 2019 l lost my job after the general election. I had no savings as I come from a poor/working-class background. I have never had savings. I have always lived hand to mouth. I was a free school meal kid growing up. I have also always had a job since the age of 13.
I didn’t have a break in employment until I had my son at 28 and my maternity leave expired and from then until working again when my son was three, I became a Town Councillor and undertook a master’s degree. When I lost my job in December 2019, I had to wait for 5 weeks to receive any support and that was further delayed by Christmas time, so it ended up being nearly two months. I really struggled last year, I missed rent and got myself into debt that I will be paying off for many years. I tell you this not for sympathy but as an example of how people become or indeed remain poor because some people just don’t seem to get it. No one should have to prove themselves to show how worthy they are of help.
This pandemic will have made many similar situations for people. Our media and society have become so obsessed with blaming people for the circumstances they end up in, claiming anyone can make it to the top if they try hard enough and blaming the most vulnerable for our own shortcomings that we seem to have lost the ability of collective responsibility and care for our communities.
On reading articles online regarding the latest free schools’ meals provision I have also seen loads of very unsympathetic comments along the lines of ‘we were poor and never went hungry’ and ‘they should be grateful for what they get, we don’t have much money and make things work’ etc. This makes my heart break even more. Just because it was hard for you many years ago don’t you think it’s terrible that it is still that hard with how much the world has progressed since?
As I previously mentioned I grew up poor and indeed I never went hungry. But many things have changed since I was young. The cost of rent, food, clothes, public transport, household bills and the introduction of extras such as mobile phones, internet and computers (which didn’t actually even exist when I was a child) has increased massively in relation to minimum wage and the welfare benefits families can access.
Now to get to what is offered to children every day in school to what has been offered out in those disgusting packages.
For those that don’t have kids, currently every child in reception until year 2 is entitled to free school dinners. In my opinion, this is excellent and should be expanded to all school children as, as well as quality education, food is essential to being able to learn and it is another way of creating equality in the school environment. In all honesty, I am dreading when my son isn’t entitled to this next year. As a single parent, it makes a big difference to my monthly budget, as I am not on a particularly high wage (but better than the minimum), and to my time and planning, being the sole person who organises everything for my son.
I have just sat down with my son and asked him what he is offered at school. From my memory and his, children are offered two options every day, which includes the following throughout the week; roast gammon, veggie/meat burgers, a veggie/meat sausage, macaroni cheese, omelette, a wrap with cheese and salad, fish fingers and jacket potato with beans and cheese. At every meal, there are a variety of vegetables that are offered including broccoli, sweetcorn, carrots, peas and salad. Each child is offered a piece of bread with each meal. Of course, pudding is also offered which include options of fruit every day, jelly, cake and custard and yoghurt. Quite different to the supplies we saw in those packages hey?
What I want is for Universal Credit to at least remain the same amount as it is after the £20 a week increase introduced for COVID-19 (they are about to take this increase away), or to increase the allowance for rent and food expenses. I would like to see families given the same amount of money the private companies where given to provide this food (so that already sickeningly rich companies can’t make a profit of poor families and children starving) so that they can make their own choices of what their children will enjoy and give them the agency and respect they deserve.
Ultimately, I would like a change of government but until that possibility comes around again what I would love to see is a deeper understanding of the struggles the most vulnerable people in our community’s face, a more collective sense of responsibility for our communities, and for it not to take these sudden uptakes of the press on certain events to show us how cruel and uncaring this government is.
Laurie Davies is a Stroud Town Councillor and a mother