From the frontline of free school meals

This week, I looked into the eyes of children who might have gone hungry. But because of the efforts of my local community, this half term 5,000 free lunches were distributed across Lewisham to families who usually rely on free school meals. 

The Lewisham Packed Lunch appeal was launched by Lewisham’s three Mayoresses. Their target was to raise £10,000 but the response went over and above, and the Mayoresses ended up raising over £34,000.

Like so many others, I was enraged by the government’s vote against extending free school meals over half term. I was disgusted to see MPs’ scathing, generic characterisations of families who rely on such a crucial service. I felt sickened that our government – our so-called elected representatives – don’t seem to represent us at all. Their short-sightedness that free school meals wouldn’t fix the problem was baffling. Of course it wouldn’t, but if you could choose between a child going hungry or not… well, it’s not a choice really, is it? 

These are exceptional times, yet it seemed like that vote wasn’t looking at the whole picture. The demand for help has surged not because parents prefer to buy fags over food, but because we’re heading into the second double-dip recession in under a decade. 

It’s because people have lost jobs, unemployment is rising, and food bank usage is predicted to increase by 61% this winter. This is not a failing by our own design, but because of the pandemic. According to the Trussell Trust, an additional 100,000 families have needed the help of a foodbank since the start of the pandemic. 71% of those families hadn’t had financial issues before the pandemic. Families with children were the hardest hit. This could happen to anyone. 

Incensed by the misguidedness of it all, I decided to join the local effort. And for the past five days, I’ve been handing out free lunches at Goldsmiths Community Centre in Catford. My fellow volunteers were equally motivated because of the news – some inspired by Marcus Rashford’s efforts, others because they couldn’t comprehend how we got here. Helping felt like the right thing to do.

Goldsmiths was one of the pick-up points for lunches, with volunteers preparing the lunches at another site earlier in the day. We were sent parcels with a choice of sandwiches – ham, cheese or tuna – plus lunches for those with special dietary needs including halal, lactose-free and vegan options. All that was left for us to do was to hand over the lunches.

Some families came once or twice, others stopped by every day. With their Jurassic Park sweatshirts, tightly clutched toys, headbands and puffer jackets, these children gave huge smiles, squeals of “HAM!” and exuded a wide-eyed joy at being offered an extra apple. Every child said “please” and “thank you”, and it tore my heart apart. I was on the receiving end of many a knowing, grateful smile from mum or dad as they left, hopefully with one less thing to worry about.

Passers by stopped, curious about what we were doing. One man carrying a loaf of bread said he’d heard about the free school meals debate but “didn’t realise this was happening on my doorstep.” He took down the info of the local food bank, and a look of decisiveness passed over his face that was otherwise pained by what he’d just heard.

By the end of the week they’d coordinated the distributions of 5,000 meals throughout the borough. That’s 5,000 families who didn’t have to go hungry this week. Undeniably this has been a huge success. Being able to hand even one lunch to one child is a win. Because no child should ever go hungry.