By Sean Meleady

While Marcus Rashford has been making headlines with the campaign that led to a government u-turn on free meals vouchers, community groups are working hard to make sure that free meals vouchers are provided to families that need them during every school holiday, not just while the Coronavirus pandemic is in the news.   

Norfolk Unite Community is one of the community branches of Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union. There are 120 branches nationwide, made up of 16,000 community members who are mostly unemployed, retired or carers. 

On Monday 20 July, Norfolk Unite Community launched the Norfolk Against Holiday Hunger Campaign (and were joined by RMT and NEU) to make school holiday meal vouchers permanent for children and families across the county that live in poverty, or alternatively increase benefits such as child tax credit to increase those families’ income. Families on free school meals struggle with ‘holiday hunger’ because of a combination of the lack of state support during the holidays and the long waiting times to receive means tested benefits such as Universal Credit. 

According to research from End Child Poverty released last year, 37.8% of children in Norwich South live in poverty. In Norwich North the figure stands at 32. 4%, with the area around Clarkson Road in Earlham ranked as the most deprived area of the city. In some areas of Wensum and Mancroft child poverty is over 50%. Across the county it is a similar story – 32% of children in Great Yarmouth live in poverty, as do 23.5% in North Norfolk, 24.7% in King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, 23.7% in Breckland and just over 18% in Broadland and South Norfolk

Mile Cross Primary School has 33% of its pupils receiving free school meals compared to the national primary average of 13.7%. It is in this area of Norwich, once feted as an example of Labour municipal housing, that Unite Community have developed their base at The Phoenix Centre in Mile Cross Road.  

Volunteers at work in the Phoenix Centre. Credit: Sean Meleady

Since July 2018 they have run the Unite Community Free Lunches Project during all half terms and school holidays. Any child accompanied by an adult is eligible to receive food, in contrast to food banks which typically require a referral. Unite obtain food donations from supermarkets through Norwich Food Hub, another volunteer organisation which acts as a centralised storage point for food donations until Unite members pick them up. 

During lockdown Unite provided an average of 151 packed lunches per day over 9 days at Easter, when many families found their situation made more difficult by issues with government issued school meals vouchers. It is experiences like these that have provided the impetus for the launch of the Holiday Hunger Campaign. 

Owen John, a Norfolk Unite Community volunteer, explains that the project is there to support those who are failed by the current free school meals and welfare system: 

“It’s the same issue every year: parents who receive their free school meals find themselves £30 or £40 worse off in the holidays. We are able to provide food for people struggling to feed their kids and draw awareness to the fact that an effective system of free school meals needs to be provided all year around, not just in term time. 

“The vast majority of people we see here at the centre are those who fall through the cracks of this shoddy welfare system we have at the moment.”Unite Community have also expressed opposition to Universal Credit, the scheme rolled out in Norwich in October 2018 for people out of work or on low incomes. It combines and replaces previously separate benefits such as housing, tax credit, working tax credit and income-based job seekers allowance. Thousands of people in Norwich and Norfolk now claim Universal Credit.

This is an act of solidarity, empowering communities through grassroots campaigning

Universal Credit has been criticised on many fronts during its slow introduction over the past decade. Claimants endure waits of up to 5 or 6 weeks to receive their benefits, which can have dangerous consequences during the pandemic, as John points out: 

“People apply and have this five week wait and that can lead them not knowing where their next meal is going to come from. We have people coming here saying they literally don’t know what they would do without the food service we provide here. 

“People who are scared of going back into unsafe workplaces are starting to come to terms with the fact that if the sanctions regime can penalise them for not going back they have a choice between going and catching Covid or being starved by their own government.”

Unite Community Youth Officer Niahl Hubbard argues that the current free school meals voucher system drives more families into poverty, while universal credit disproportionately affects women. 

“We need to expand the number of parents who are able to receive these free school meal vouchers. At the moment it is those who are at the bottom of the earning ladder who receive them, so you have an invisible layer of poverty above this boundary. 

“We work with a lot of mothers through the schools. Because universal credit payments go to the head of the household, mums are unable to manage their own finances.”

Unite Community’s motto is ‘Solidarity Not Charity’. The group aims to offer support and advice, as well as food, to families who are struggling financially. This is an act of solidarity, empowering communities through grassroots campaigning to make a sustainable difference in people’s lives, rather than simply a charity helping those in need until the funding runs out. 

 Unite Community are expanding their operations into other parts of Norwich and across the county, working with primary schools in Great Yarmouth and Lakenham to combat holiday hunger in some of the most deprived areas of the country. Rather than offering support from afar they are integrating union work into working class communities, developing systems for volunteers to work where help is needed most, and building a truly Norfolk-wide community union.

Featured image credit: Norfolk Unite Community

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