The EIS remains deeply concerned that large numbers of children and young people are underfed and undernourished as a result of poverty at home and of the insufficiency of social security measures to prevent this. The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly exacerbated pre-existing societal inequalities and intensified austerity-induced poverty and deprivation.

The economic shocks of Covid continue to be felt by the poorest and now rising costs of living are compounding the struggles that a fifth of the population of Scotland – a million people, including 270,000 children – face every day, not least with regards to access to food, a fundamental necessity for human survival.

The EIS recently launched a briefing on Hunger and Food Insecurity, the second of a series of briefings that will culminate in a refresh of the EIS’s highly respected ‘Face Up to Child Poverty’ publication. The briefing aims to highlight the key issues relative to hunger and food insecurity for EIS members, and to provide advice on the kinds of interventions that can be made at school and Local Association level to address them.

Hunger, lack of nutrition and learning

Whilst hunger and undernourishment are a human rights issue in themselves, they also conspire to impact on children and young people’s learning – how they engage in it and in terms of the outcomes from it, both in the short and the long term.

Hunger impacts directly on a young person’s ability to concentrate and associated dips in blood sugar can also influence behaviour. Young people who are hungry will often appear withdrawn or will exhibit challenging behaviour as their brains react to the physical impacts of insufficient food intake.

Over time, where insufficiency of healthy food is a chronic issue, young people are likely to experience the longer-term effects of undernourishment. Lack of key nutrients and vitamins damages both physical and mental wellbeing.

Hunger and food insecurity

Public Health Scotland defines food insecurity as ‘the inability to acquire or consume an adequate or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so’. By this definition, the EIS is clear that food insecurity affects large numbers of children and young people who attend our educational establishments. EIS concerns in this regard are borne out by data held by leading national and third sector organisations with expertise on food insecurity.

Foodbank use

Before the introduction of Austerity policies, in 2009 there was only 1 Trussell Trust foodbank in Scotland. That number has increased by more than a hundred-fold to 119 in 2022. In June 2019, there were known to be over 80 other independent foodbanks in operation.

The latest data from the Trussell Trust records that 84,555 food parcels were issued by the organisation in Scotland in the period between April and November 2021. Almost 30,000 of these were to children.

With a quarter of children in Scotland living in poverty, it can be concluded that many are living in homes in which food insecurity is a real issue and for whom, in the absence of adequate social security provision, even with recent Scottish Government supplementary payments, foodbanks are a lifeline.

Foodbank and other charity collections of food

Many schools collect items for donation to local foodbanks at various points in the year and/or organise collections of food to donate as a way of marking Harvest-time and Christmas. In light of the widespread use of foodbanks in Scotland and of the fact that thousands of children receive food aid from them, it’s important to be sensitive to the fact that some families within the school community are likely to be dependent on foodbanks or other charity donations of food for their own survival.

Many will therefore be unable to donate items and are likely to feel the associated stigma of being unable to contribute, as well as the stigma that could arise from the school’s focus on foodbanks generally.

Free School Meals

Free school meals are another essential support for children whose families are struggling as a result of low incomes and high living costs, to buy enough food. The EIS has welcomed the extension of the universal free school meals offer to children in P4 and P5 during academic session 2021-22. Universal free school meals provision is a longstanding EIS campaigning objective.

Supporting access to Free School Meal entitlements

As campaigning continues, it’s important to try to ensure that all families who have children in P6-S6 who might be eligible, are supported as necessary to apply for free school meals. Members are encouraged through their EIS Branch to raise the matter with the appropriate members of the school management team with a view to ensuring that effective processes are in place to make families aware, with due sensitivity, of their entitlements and to support them with applications as necessary.

Breakfast clubs

The need for breakfast clubs has grown over the past decade in response to the increasing numbers of children who arrive in school hungry. The EIS has also called for universal provision of free breakfasts for children of all ages and stages. The Scottish Government is now planning for this.

Provision of snacks

The EIS has previously highlighted how members in many instances are providing food to hungry children in their classes, having purchased this themselves. It is commendable that teachers have gone, and continue to go to, such lengths in response to the urgent wellbeing issues that hunger presents. Staggered breaks and lunchtimes as a Covid mitigation, will mean that some children could be going hungry for longer in the school day than they otherwise would until breaktime or lunchtime. In such a context, arrangements for the provision of snacks are even more important.

Poverty-related stigma

Poverty-related stigma poses a further wellbeing concern for thousands of young people. That secondary-aged pupils are entirely missing from the current Scottish Government plans to extend universal free school meals provision makes little sense from a policy perspective, and more importantly, it’s prolonging the suffering that many young people between the ages of 12 and 18 are experiencing with regards to hunger itself and the stigma associated with applying for free school meals on a means-tested basis, and going (or not) to collect one each day. The impact of stigma on young people’s wellbeing can’t be underestimated.

Young people and stigma

The same applies for many parents who are put in the position of having to apply for free school meals for their children and, of course, for the young people taking free meals in school. This is particularly true for those who are of an age to have awareness of inequalities, especially older children who are more likely to feel the stigma and shame that result from political, social and media attitudes to poverty.

The shift in recent years to using electronic cards to pay for school meals in part addresses some of the issues of stigma. All young people using school canteens have the same types of card – there is no longer the stigmatisation arising from obvious differences in colours of dinner tickets, for example. But stigma remains. Young people who are entitled to free meals may have less value on their cards than those who are more affluent, and this could be obvious in the meal choices that they make or whether a breaktime snack is purchased or not.

– Extracted from the EIS Briefing on Hunger & Food Insecurity (February 2022). Access the full version via: www.eis.org.uk/Child-Poverty/Hunger