South Ribble 'holiday hunger' demand surges during pandemic

Demand for a council-run ‘holiday hunger’ scheme in South Ribble has rocketed since the onset of the pandemic – with a more than sevenfold increase in the number of meals supplied.

Friday, 12th March 2021, 2:11 pm
Updated Friday, 12th March 2021, 2:12 pm

Almost 3,900 children received food parcels from Easter 2020 until the end of last year – the equivalent of more than 51,000 lunches. They were provided during holiday periods to pupils eligible for free school meals during term time.

During the autumn half term and Christmas breaks in 2019 – before Covid struck – 2,065 meals were provided, but over the same period last year, that figure had leapt to 15,665, a jump of over 650 percent.

South Ribble Borough Council has renewed its commitment to the scheme, which arose from a pilot project almost two years ago and is now available across the district.

Thousands of South Ribble children entitled to free school meals have been helped by the borough's 'holiday hunger' scheme

The authority has allocated £33,840 from a £1.4m government grant it received to provide support for those hardest hit by the pandemic. A report accompanying the executive decision states that reduced household incomes and school closures during the Covid crisis have left some South Ribble families facing “hardship and uncertainty”.

The money is intended to cover the forthcoming Easter break and includes cash spent on the project during the February half term.

The families in need of help are identified by teachers, but the decision report notes that there is a risk of “continued increasing demand”, with the authority working with Lancashire County Council’s school advisory team to ensure that it is meeting a “genuine need”.

Councillors also recently earmarked £60,000 to the scheme, spread over four years, when it set its annual budget last month. A contractor will be appointed to deliver the programme during 2021/22.

Commenting on the financial commitment, cabinet member for health and wellbeing Mick Titherington said that tackling health inequalities is one of the council’s “core objectives”.

“Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, we were aware that some children were going hungry, particularly during school holidays – and we were determined to do something about it. We all know that the pandemic has hit those already living in hardship, hardest.

“Children going hungry is not something this council will tolerate. For many of our most vulnerable children, their free school meal could be the only hot meal they eat in a day.

“This money will ensure children across the borough do not go hungry during the school holidays,” he added.

At its recent budget meeting, the Labour-run authority also rejected a suggestion that a £20,000 scheme to provide more than 150 tablets to help pupils with lockdown learning had discriminated against different parts of the borough.

Conservative councillor for Moss Side, Michael Green, applauded the commitment, but questioned why it had been “targeted” at certain areas.

The scheme focused on schools in the Broadfield and Wade Hall areas of Leyland, along with Bamber Bridge and Kingsfold in Penwortham.

“There are sadly children right across South Ribble who suffer from digital exclusion – and during the time of Covid that has had an impact on their education,” Cllr Green said.

“Even [as] the schools return to normal…it will be a massive advantage to those children and their schools [who have received the equipment].”

However, cabinet member for finance Matthew Tomlinson responded that the scheme “is not – and never has been – ward specific”, but was targeted at deprivation.

“We are talking to the schools where the most free school meals are given out, because we know that’s where the need is – those children could be coming from any surrounding wards,” he explained.