The headline in a national newspaper says it all, “Britain’s dirty secret; scandal of the hungry children.” The scandal refers to an estimated 2 million children in Britain suffering from maltreatment including neglect, many of whom are increasingly struggling to get enough to eat. Kids Company reaches over 17,000 vulnerable children, providing loving care and practical support. We’ve just launched our Plate Pledge appeal, driven by the stark facts from research we carried out with children who come to our street level centres; 85 percent of the children told us they depend on us for their main meal of the day, 64 percent told us there’s no food at home and 33 percent said they rely on cheap takeaways.
We’ve seen self referrals increase to a level of 233 percent from where they were a year ago, mostly because children are coming to our centres saying they are hungry and there’s not enough food at home. Children like David, a 10-year-old boy with lightning fast mental arithmetic developed out of hunger and desperation. At just 10, David does all the shopping and cooking, calculating in his head all the items in his trolley so they don’t come to more than the £20 that he and his disabled Mum have each week for all their food.
He quietly told me how he does all the housework and cares for his wheelchair-bound Mum who suffers from a neurological condition. Other than Kids Company, the only support he receives is from his elderly grandmother whose presence is sporadic. Kids Company is a lifeline for David and his Mum, with daily meals and a Kids Company keyworker and volunteer mentor supporting them. David’s circumstances do not meet the threshold for action from Social Services who are overwhelmed by more severe cases requiring immediate action.
David’s situation is extreme in that it isn’t unusual. As a society we seem unable or unwilling to address the deep structural inadequacies of a child welfare system that can’t offer vulnerable children; safety, love, food or the basics such as a bed or a toothbrush. Why is it that the public purse can find £11 billion to create the transient spectacle of the Olympic Games whilst at the same time deepening the tragedy of neglected children by cutting budgets for already stretched children’s services across the country?
Our Plate Pledge nutrition survey of 21 inner London schools tracks the recent findings by the Prince’s Trust, except the deprivation we’ve found is even harsher. There’s an estimated 350,000 children living in severe poverty in London, many a stone’s throw from the Olympic Village, but it’s in our state schools where deprived children are being noticed in ever increasing numbers. Nearly 90 percent of the schools we surveyed said poor nutrition was impacting their children, 5 schools said that over 70 percent of their pupils were affected by food insecurity, 4 schools told us that over half their children are malnourished and 5 schools reported that over 60 percent of their children are being affected by hunger. Childhood food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition are now a silent epidemic, an inconvenient symptom of a confluence of top down failures.
With our politicians mired in the mistakes of the past and an ever widening gap between the rich and poor are our children the first casualties of a second Great Depression in the making? As the safety net of welfare shrinks how long before food banks, suburban soup kitchens and bread queues keep people not being caught by it, alive? Through the kindness of strangers Kids Company is able to support David, who has a real chance to transcend his poverty, but kindness tends to evaporate when personal survival is threatened. If we all scream loudly enough perhaps our political leaders will wake up to what’s happening to our children now, so it never gets to that point.
Pledge a meal for a vulnerable child www.kidscoplatepledge.org
Laurence Guinness, Head of Campaigns and Research, Kids Company