Charities preparing to feed children if schools shut over coronavirus

Schools are first line of defence against hunger, Feeding Britain says, with up to 3m pupils at risk

A charity led by the archbishop of Canterbury is preparing to help feed children if schools are closed by coronavirus, amid fears the withdrawal of free school dinners could leave up to 3 million children at risk of hunger.

Feeding Britain, which runs food poverty schemes in 12 areas of England including Cornwall, Leicester, Barnsley and South Shields, is exploring how to set up emergency programmes similar to those used to feed the poorest children during the summer holidays.

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, which serves thousands of hot meals to children every summer in London boroughs, is also “prepared to enter crisis mode”, while food projects in Bristol and Huddersfield said they were exploring how their schemes to feed hundreds of children in school holidays could be adapted to help cope with emergency closures.

“For so many families now, schools are the first line of defence against hunger,” said Andrew Forsey, the national director of Feeding Britain, whose president is the Most Rev Justin Welby. “In many cases it is breakfast as well as lunch, so if the schools close it’s two meals we have to find. There is early-stage planning going on around ensuring supplies of food and the extent of voluntary support that could be drawn upon if some schools do need to close.”

Downing Street said on Tuesday that school closures would be among “distancing strategies” used if the virus became established in the UK. On Thursday, Italy closed all of its schools and colleges for a month.

FareShare, a charity that distributes food to more than 700 holiday food projects, has said it wants to recruit more volunteers to tackle the fallout from coronavirus.

An immediate challenge is likely to be finding a way to deliver meals in a way that maintains the distance between people that school closures are meant to achieve. The Bristol project said it could involve delivering food parcels door-to-door. Forsey also said panic-buying that cleared supermarket shelves could hinder efforts as many free meal programmes relied on retailers’ donations.

MPs have estimated 3 million children are at risk of being hungry in the school holidays – made up of more than a million children who qualify for free school meals, and about 2 million who are disqualified from free school meals because their parents work but remain in poverty.

Donna Sealey, a charity worker at the Ambition Lawrence Weston food project in Bristol, which fed 175 children over the summer, said: “If it is a week off, many can scrape along, but a month would be a significant amount of time. By the second week, you haven’t got any money or food. We would kick in the programme to do something similar to the six-week school holiday.”

Sealey said problems could be worsened because many families relied on money from zero-hours contract work, which meant if they had to look after their children their earnings would dry up.

Teachers have said that closures are likely to most disadvantage the educations of pupils at state primaries because they lack the IT infrastructure of private schools and state secondaries.

A survey has found that while a majority of state secondary school teachers said they could set work for their pupils remotely, fewer than one in 10 state primary school teachers said their school was able to broadcast lessons to pupils by video.

Only about one in six said they had the technology to set and receive work from pupils, according to the survey by the Teacher Tapp app. Nearly 30% of teachers at primary and secondary independent schools said they already had the capacity to deliver lessons by video.

“State schools can’t take for granted that every child has their own device at home and limitless data access,” said the former teacher Laura McInerney, a Guardian education columnist and co-founder of the app.


Robert Booth and Richard Adams

The GuardianTramp

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